I Found It At The Movies
Updated: Jul 1
My Adventures In Underscore Pt. 7 - Exploring sex and soundtracks in the mid-Seventies
My college years brought new freedom. Thanks to a little income (from doing maintenance work) I could afford to go to more movies and buy more soundtrack albums. And now that I was keeping track of who was writing the music, it was time to get serious.
But my timing was off. The ’70s may have been a great time to be a director in Hollywood, but the same was not true for composers. The lush musical scores of the past were no longer in vogue. Thank goodness for the regular stream of re-recordings by Charles Gerhardt—the few soundtrack LPs that I could find locally were for the most popular movies, and they disappeared quickly. Good luck finding cool scores to offbeat films like John Carpenter’s early exploitation flicks—if they even existed at all (they didn’t). I would read about interesting films in Cinefantastique and Film Comment, but was unwilling to spend the time and money to track ’em down in NYC or Philly.
I was still recording the occasional film on cassette for replay, but I didn’t have the time or patience to hover in front of the TV as I once had. I was spending many hours driving now, to work, to school, to friends—and with no way to listen to soundtracks in my car, I turned to FM radio for rock and funk. That suited my other new pursuit: Women, to be precise. Not that I didn’t try to combine interests.
In early ’76 I took my first college girlfriend to New York to see Barry Lyndon. It was a doubly-loaded date—would she like the movie by my favorite director? And could we/would we get to third base? It was a half hour’s bus ride from Montclair State to Manhattan, followed by a brisk twenty-minute walk uptown to the Ziegfeld on 54th street. The 18th-century, literary opus was as grand as the surroundings, which was certainly the biggest theater I’d ever attended. I grew up in a town where sports beat the arts at every turn—but this place was bigger than a football field!
As usual, Mr. Kubrick built many of his sequences around the musical accompaniment, which delighted me—but I wondered if my companion was equally absorbed by the stately reverse zooms and relentless tracking shots. I got goosebumps during the run up to a well-scored duel. Michelle, however, was stifling a yawn.
Walking back to the bus terminal, she shared her English-major caveats about the source material as well as her reservations about the lead actor. My spell was unshakeable, however, and we stopped at Colony Records for the soundtrack. Back at her dorm room, I insisted we tear off the shrink wrap to revisit the new (to me) sounds of Irish pipes and throbbing Sarabande. Side one played though, while we attempted to, ah, cover the bases in the gathering darkness. Stanley’s soundtrack may have been another artistic triumph, but it’s no “Bolero.” And the release of Shampoo the following month only served to remind me that I was no Warren Beatty.
I consoled myself as the designated film reviewer for my school paper, and that status entitled me to a couple of free press screenings. I rubbed elbows with publisher William Gaines at A Star Is Born (more memorable than the movie!) and later, discovered the latest score by the composer of Jaws (which was also much more fun than its movie!) I’ll admit that the western is one of my least favorite genres, and this oater with Brando and Nicholson was a mess, but Johnny—I mean John—Williams’ jaunty, pop-inflected score was a treat. Thanks to having seen the film pre-release, I was on the lookout for The Missouri Breaks LP the following Tuesday. It was and continues to be a delight.
One movie that I was looking forward to (but didn’t get to review) was a buzzy horror flick by a director I hadn’t heard of before. Thanks to my newly-updated composer checklist, however, I knew the guy who wrote the music all too well, whose work included last year’s The Reincarnation of Peter Proud. I remember liking that music (even though I hadn't heard it since) particularly the haunting piano melody and dreamy synth washes which were still a novelty. The film left a big impression on me, partly for its metaphysical questions but mainly for its casually smutty air (there was a lot of that going around). If Peter was really Reincarnated, was he actually hitting on his own, hot daughter? Clearly there were other things top of mind, and without a record, the sex upstaged the score.
The Omen started out strong, thanks to Goldsmith’s wickedly powerful take on the material. The “black mass” chorus struck a deep chord in this lapsed Catholic kid, making me feel naughty and making the film seem more credible than it was. But as Damien’s gruesome executions tallied up, it was hard to separate the music from my queasiness. I hadn’t seen much in the way of Grand-Guignol entertainments before, nor was I very interested in such things. I bought the album, and came to enjoy the music much more on its own (it was an Oscar winner, after all). For the first time, I noticed that some of the music that I remembered in the film was not on the album. This was surprising, because I’d assumed that it would all be there. (That shows you how really innocent I was.)
But my innocence in other matters was fading. On a school trip to England, I managed to break out with a few pals and explore some disreputable entertainments in and around London. One night we caught a screening of the notorious Last Tango in Paris which was still in release after almost two years. It was a late show, and the theater was almost unbearably warm, so our raised body temperatures made the un-air-conditioned cinema quite the sauna. But somehow we managed to stay awake—and it wasn’t Gato Barbieri’s sultry, Continental score that held our attention, if we noticed it at all.
The real musical highlight of the trip occurred back at the hostel. We were housed with a bunch of English girls who were visiting from the countryside. They were happy to take advantage of the TV in the community room. Someone suggested that we watch a frightening flick that most of them hadn’t seen—and to be honest, I had missed it up to this point, but I knew what was coming. We sat in the dark, as the black and white TV barely lit the faces of the provincial girls who giggled at sight of a movie star packing her bags with stolen loot. The laughs subsided as she motored thru the driving rain, the strings keeping time with her windshield wipers. There was muttering when she checked into the motel, even as the suspenseful music subsided. But when her relaxing shower was cut short with a kitchen knife, I felt two hands grip my arm—Minnie from Cornwall was shrieking into my ear. She didn’t let go for another hour, her grip tightening and releasing with each suspenseful chord.
Thank you Mssrs. Herrmann and Hitchcock. NOW I see how this is supposed to work.
A few months later, I was with my new girlfriend, watching another scary movie that everyone was talking about. The director already had a reputation for quirky and intense material—and for borrowing liberally from Hitch, including his composer. From the opening scene—in another shower, no less—I could see that we were back in familiar musical territory. The lush strings were counterbalanced with a sweet-but-melancholy melody on flute for the painfully shy heroine, that cut right to my heart. By the climactic prom night massacre, there were truckloads of violin stings swiped from Psycho and overlaid with a piercing synth drone. I loved the movie, the music, and the way my date Leslie leaned into me (or grabbed my thigh!) at every tense moment. This time I was ready.
So when the sweet melody returned for the last time, the gentle music put us at ease. The crazy mother was dead, the tragic heroine was at peace, the innocent girl friend was… walking in reverse? Just when we thought it was safe, Carrie’s bloody arm thrust out of the ground, signaling the orchestra to deliver a hammer-blow crescendo. From the back of the theater, I watched as the entire audience levitated out of their seats, blocking the screen with a tidal wave of terror that washed away our collective complacence. DePalma and Donaggio taught us not to trust happy endings. Scary movies would never be the same.
The same could be said for giant monster movies. As a die-hard fan of the fairy-tale tone, groundbreaking animation and bravura score in the original King Kong, the heavily-promoted and smirking update had three strikes against it. And as much as I loved John Barry’s modern music for James Bond, I hated it in this context. I came to realize, if you love the original, the remake ain’t for you.
There was one other movie, with a relatively spare score and powerfully iconic theme, that would end 1976 on a high note. My experience of this decade at the movies had been a bummer, thematically speaking. Seemed like every other film was a dystopia, a downer or simply depressing. I guess the debacle of Vietnam, the wakeup call of Watergate, and an ongoing energy crisis was taking its toll (gasoline might hit $1 a gallon!) Things didn’t look so good for the hero of this movie, either: he was down on his luck, struggling to get a date and wishing for just one break to turn his career around.
I guess that’s what made Rocky so exhilarating. After six years of bad trips and bummers, we finally had something to cheer for. It was really unprecedented in that cultural context. Bill Conti wrote music that captured his hero’s dreary downtrodden life, then turned it around into an anthem that still powers the big dreams of little guys to this day. Never mind that Balboa didn’t actually win his match, he triumphed in spirit. And that’s when the music really works in the movies, when it captures the spirit of the story and carries the audience away with it. Leslie and I left that theater feeling like a couple of winners, ready to take on the world.
That year I got the girl—and I scored—if you’ll pardon the expression.
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