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 Keith Allison, the evil overlord at Teleport City, who shares five incredibly strange scoring choices, below.
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Like just about everyone who will be piping up as part of this series, the idea of picking my five favorite soundtracks is a study in folly. I could go on all day and fill pages with soundtracks I adore. But rules are rules, and if I am going to have any chance of succeeding at this, I have to inflict yet more rules. So I decided on a couple things. First, no soundtracks that are just compilations of songs. Those can be done incredibly well, but I figured on sticking with original scores here. Second, and more importantly, I thought I’d restrict myself to soundtracks that seem, based on any logical assessment, to be completely ill-suited and contradictory to the film they accompany, or that are otherwise incredibly strange scoring choices that never the less, when put into context, work perfectly. For each of these five, it’s not just a soundtrack I love; it’s a soundtrack that is absolutely as essential to the success of the movie as any other aspect. So while it pains me to compile a list that doesn’t contain things like You Only Live Twice, Violent Naples, Streets of Fire, or In the Mood for Love, or anything by Morricone, I thought we’d be better served this time out with something a little more skewed toward an oddball philosophy. So here we go.
Hanna – Chemical Brothers
Nothing about Hanna should work. From it’s bizarre performances, insane camera work, and all-around nuttiness, it’s a psychedelic art film that somehow collided with a Bourne style espionage action film. Love it. Chief among the film’s weird elements is the soundtrack by 90s trance/electronica veterans Chemical Brothers. It’s a delirious whirlwind of music boxes, thumping beats, ghostly sighing, and buzzing electronic madness that seems like it should have nothing to do with a spy movie — until you see it in context. I think it works brilliantly, and the film would not be as successful at its peculiar mix of frantic spy action and faery tale surrealism if it wasn’t accompanied by the Chemical Brothers music.
Suspiria – Goblin
Goblin did a staggering amount of great work during their years in the Italian horror and exploitation film industry, but for my money, Suspiria remains their crowning achievement, just as the crowning achievement of the 2012 Summer Olympics was having two Russian synchronized swimmers use the film’s main theme during their routine. Suspiria has one foot rooted in Goblin’s prog rock roots, another foot in exotic tribal percussion, and since we’re going weird here, a third foot in some sort of Monastic chanting meets whatever sort of chanting it is occultists are likely to be doing. At times it threatens to overpower the film it is meant to accompany, but in the end the discordant blend of electronics, thundering, and chanting becomes the perfect mood setter for Dario Argento’s equally odd stylistic choices for the film.
Ravenous – Damon Albarn & Michael Nyman
For my money, Ravenous is one of the most criminally underseen and unknown horror films of all time, and a goodly part of what helps it succeed is its soundtrack’s unhinged take on classic Americana. Banjos, dulcimers, harmoniums, fiddles, fifes — all pretty normal territory for a film set in the remote Rockies of the 1800s. But nothing about the way the songs are played is right. There is always something slightly alien about these things that should be so familiar, which turns even the most mundane of moments in the film into something jarring, sinister, and unsettling. It’s like a circus gone creepy, or something being played by one of those all-hobo old time bands (that was a thing, right?). Using happy or recognizable music ironically is easy, but Ravenous is much subtler, infusing a horrific and at times almost subliminally nightmarish undercurrent into things. It’s the perfect music for a film that starts out on seemingly familiar territory and gets increasingly weirder. I listen to it when I go backpacking, and it freaks me the hell out.
To the Stars by Hard Ways – Alexei Rybnikov & Dmitry Rybnikov
To the Stars is a likeable, earnest, and somewhat corny bit of Soviet era science fiction whose colorful special effects and can-do working class optimism is tinged by more than a hint of uncertainty and melancholy. The soundtrack is strange and clashing mic of typically disco-ish 80s space electronica and anachronistic harpsichords and chamber music. The final combination shouldn’t work at all, let alone in a science fiction adventure, but that doesn’t stop it from clicking perfectly with and helping to augment the overall mood of the movie. If they’d gone with typical John Williams lite space orchestras, as much of science fiction was doing, it would have changed the movie completely. Instead, we get an odd conflict between past and future, not unlike the soundtrack for A Clockwork Orange, and a score that transforms the movie into something much more haunting than is promised by the flashing lights and silly robots.
Apocalypse Now – Carmine Coppola
War movie soundtracks have pretty much been the same since the dawn of war movies. Some majestic orchestration, some martial “rat-a-tat-tat,” and you are good to go. When Francis Ford Coppola made a war movie as screwy as Apocalypse Now, it was pretty obvious that a typically gung-ho soundtrack wouldn’t suit it. So Carmine Coppola gave Francis a trippy, experimental electronic soundtrack that seems to have almost nothing to do with the movie. It is supremely creepy, more like the soundtrack to a weird horror or sci-fi film than a Vietnam movie. And man is it good. What goes on in Apocalypse Now is a little weird, but it’s not that weird — until it’s all set to that jumble of keyboards and nightmarish audio doodling. The music elevates the film into a disturbing, surreal masterpiece it could not have been without it.
Keith considers it a good day if he finds himself in a torn Army green t-shirt, using a badly notched machete to split open a coconut and hand half of it to the scantily clad woman sitting on the beach next to him as he stares out at the waves and listens intently for the sound of war drums drifting from the dense jungle foliage behind him.
He is also the administrator of the world’s most beloved lifestyle website, Teleport City. Teleport City started as a way to indulge his interest in the white edges of the cultural map, detailing a sprawling and often confusing metropolis that occupies a point between cultures. Neither beholden to nor a part of any single society, drifting like an eternal transit passenger from one arrival gate to the next.