Maybe you’re old school, and love the swelling, bombastic scores of Max Steiner and Wolfgang Maria Korngold – or perhaps you’re a rocker and have King Creole or The Girl Can’t Help It constantly on your turntable. Maybe you love the swinging sixties spy vibe, and have John Barry, Lalo Schifrin, and Hugo Montenegro loaded into you iPod. Ennio Morricone, Piero Piccioni, Bruno Nicolai, and Mario Nascimbene have legions of fans with their sophisticated Euro sounds – are you one of them? Does John Williams theme from Jaws still send shivers up your spine?
With a bit of help from a few friends, over the next week or so, I am going to be looking at movie soundtracks – from spy films and beyond. I am going to drag out some of that old vinyl and shine a light on a few of my favourites – and hopefully serve up a few aural gems that you’ve never heard before.
Today I am joined by, Kevin Pyrtle, from Wtf-Film.com., who shares his five favourite soundtracks below.
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When first approached to grace Permission to Kill with my hallowed opinion on film scores I thought, “Easy peasy. How hard can writing about your five favorite soundtracks possibly be?” Plenty hard, it seems. After a few weeks of due diligence I’ve come to the conclusion that with regard to films and their music I have just too damned many categories of “favorite” to make any sense of, especially within the confines of an article like this. All that said, I’ve given it my best shot, and present for you five favorites (in no certain order) from the more obscure recesses of my personal taste. I dig them one and all, and really, you should too.
Mikis Theodorakis – The Day the Fish Came Out
Director Michael Cacoyannis’ grim 1967 parody of small-town Greece, tourism, and the nuclear age, forgotten almost as quickly as it arrived in domestic cinemas, was and remains one of the strangest films ever conceived. Promoted (dumbly) as a sort of follow-up to the same director’s Oscar-winning Zorba the Greek, The Day the Fish Came Out instead challenged audience expectations from its wild opening titles (by the great Maurice Binder, of Bond fame) to its final apocalyptic dance of death. Esteemed composer Mikis Theodorakis’ (Z) amplified the culture clash at the picture’s heart with a score that’s appropriately iconoclastic, flanking jaunty traditional Greek melodies with aggressively modern guitar and synth riffs and improvisational jazz diversions that remind a bit of Fred Katz. It’s alternately beautiful, jarring, and numbing stuff, and it’s impossible to imagine Cocoyannis’ film without it – a sure sign of a job well done.
Shunsuke Kikuchi – Genocide: War of the Insects
Despite his relative obscurity in comparison to the likes of Ifukube, Sato, Takemitsu and so on, the contributions of prolific film and television composer Shunsuke Kikuchi’s to the flavor of the Japanese pop cinema of the 60s are impossible to ignore. Though typified by his fondness for muted laser brass and percussive synths (as evidenced by his work on Goke Body Snatcher From Hell, the Gamera series and others) Kikuchi, like so many of his overworked contemporaries, was actually possessed of quite a wide range of musical sensibilities. Nowhere is this more evident than in his score for Shochiku’s ridiculously nihilist Genocide: War of the Insects, for which the typically bombastic composer crafted an atypically melodious score. Kikuchi’s usual mix of synths and muted brass is here, but sparingly applied, and a lush, melancholy love theme is allowed to develop among the strings and woodwinds between the typical horror stings. There’s an ethereal dreaminess (and not necessarily good dreams!) to the low-boil atmospheric passages, and even a hint of Herrmann to be heard in the insectine violins. The composer has rarely been more evocative.
Stelvio Cipriani – Nightmare City
We all have our guilty pleasures, and Umberto Lenzi’s Nightmare City is one of the guiltiest of mine, that disc I drag out of the cabinet whenever friends just aren’t sure what they’re in the mood for. By the end, they’re always in the mood for Nightmare City. A frequently laughable and always entertaining mix of awkward enviro-political speechifying and bread and butter exploitation, with lots of blood and exposed flesh to keep attentions piqued, Nightmare City isn’t exactly A-class material, and the unfortunate task of composing for it fell upon the accomplished and prolific Stelvio Cipriani (Bay of Blood). Some of the cues here are quite effective, and the opening theme signals doom-and-gloom with the best of them. The rest, however, aren’t so much. A few diversions into contemporary lounge and cringeworthy dance stylings aside, Cipriani’s score is dominated by an infectious nasal synthesizer motif that’s repeated to the point of hysterics. It’s an indelible bit of love-it or hate-it scoring, and perfect for tormenting friends and enemies alike.
Masao Yagi – Legend of Dinosaurs and Monster Birds
In 1977 Toei Company spent more money than they ever had before on producing a bizarre Jaws-influenced disaster picture about one impossibly hip geologist’s hunt for a living plesiosaurus in the lakes surrounding Mt. Fuji. Punctuated by graphic human violence, giant monster fights, volcanic eruptions and even an impromptu country music show courtesy of Moroguchi Akira, Legend of Dinosaurs and Monster Birds is a weird picture for a lot of reasons. Not the least of these is jazz pianist Masao Yagi’s out-there score, a rare instance of daikaiju eiga disco-funk and one of the downright baddest things ever composed for the genre. I admit to being biased, however, as Yagi’s score is also one of the few I’ve ever heard that offers the bass clarinet (an instrument near and dear to me) any kind of star placement in the instrumentation. In the lower, moodier patches the bass clarinetist frequently carries the theme, and during one memorable monster encounter is even offered a couple of front-and-center improv spots. I spent hours of my youth figuring these parts out from a gruddy VHS pre-record, and if for that experience alone Yagi’s work will always be tops with me.
Various – The Man Who Saved the World / Turkish Star Wars
Firstly, if you’re one of those who’ve yet to see Turkish Star Wars just do it already – it commands! In all the land of illegitimate Turkish cinema perhaps none is greater than this, and that goes for its wildly illegitimate soundtrack as well. Featuring no original scoring to speak of, Turkish Star Wars instead offers what may be the ultimate film geek mix-tape. Snippets from Queen’s score for Flash Gordon are present and accounted for, as well a cue or two from John Barry’s The Black Hole and Peter Shickele’s Silent Running. Planet of the Apes? Check. And how about a hoppy disco redux of the theme to Battlestar Gallactica? Yup, that’s here too. There are even themes from well beyond the realm of science fiction, including cues from the likes of Miklos Rosza’s Ben-Hur and Ennio Morricone’s Moses. Star Wars itself remains conspicuously absent, but John Williams doesn’t escape entirely unscathed – various themes from his Raiders of the Lost Ark are repeated early and often. Sacrilege never sounded so good.
Kevin Pyrtle is a film and video critic, Harryhausen apologist, and chief cook and bottle washer for Wtf-Film.com. He lives inside your television set, at least when he’s not kicking about in the MOSS. hideaway.