How to be a music supervisor in the Fotomat era — My Adventures in Underscore, part 5.
By the time I entered high school, I’d gotten the message that soundtracks were for weirdos. In self defense, I turned to prog rock and classical music to scratch my itch for extravagant arrangements and florid melodies without embarrassment. Bands like Yes, ELO and ELP were audio methadone: I could listen to them in the presence of others with little shame, but I still craved the real stuff. And while I didn’t have much cash for albums of any kind, I did take advantage of the school music library, checking out Scheherazade, Rodeo and new recordings by Wendy Carlos.
These choices didn’t cut down on the teasing as much as I hoped. Nobody I knew in 10th grade was going on a date with a guy who was excited by Rimsky-Korsakov. I drew inward and kept my musical taste to myself. But inside, that music was percolating.
I started making super-8 movies with my friends Ron and Pat, which was an amazing development. They were seniors in the drama club, who were sufficiently impressed with the creative energies of this freshman to let me to join them. Or maybe, I got invited because no one else would take them seriously. Regardless, we were “monster kids”—genre fans whose passions went beyond just watching movies to collecting, curating or actually creating. We made a movie every summer that I was in high school, and learned a lot about storytelling, special effects and cameras. We also learned to adjust expectations—sometimes the gap between our original ideas and final execution was enormous. But we always had fun.
Home video was still several years away, so we used a silent super-8 camera to capture the images, and waited an agonizing three or four days for the film to be processed (at Herb’s Camera House in nearby Somerville). After editing, we’d send our only copy of the film off to have a thin magnetic stripe applied to one edge. Two weeks later, we could feed that fragile celluloid into our Eumig projector to complete the process.
Thanks to a built-in recorder, we could add sound after the fact, and my favorite job was selecting musical scores. It was a trick to get the record player or tape recorder synced with the projector, much less expect the actors to loop the dialog with any feeling at the same time. Any flub would require us to do the whole scene all over again. Even when it all worked, we could still hear the chattering of the projector mixed into our soundtrack. But it all seemed pretty sophisticated to our high school audience.
Our first film was a spy parody called Strange Doctor No-Love, pitting heroes Alias Lead (Pat Butkas) and sidekick Val Zarf (yours truly) against an evil German scientist (Rich Setzer) hiding in a sponge factory. Many of the gags were built around music, and we even had an original pop song, sung by a hapless teen idol while his audience applauds a slugfest playing out behind him on stage. It anticipated the structure of flicks like Kentucky Fried Movie and Airplane!, with more gags than plot, but with everything played straight. The movie clocked at just 23 min, but was packed with cues. What the heck, you can program your own SDN-L playlist right here:
“Walk from Reggio’s” (Isaac Hayes, Shaft) - pre-credits death scene
“As Time Goes By” (Dooley Wilson, Casablanca) - Hero meets his sidekick
“Patton March” (Jerry Goldsmith, Patton) - Sidekick dresses as “a serviceman”
“Ellie’s Love Theme” (Isaac Hayes, Shaft) - Hero meets the femme fatale
“Squishy Squishy!” (original song sung by Bobby Sponges - *sorry, not available!)
“Godfather Love Theme” (Nino Rota, The Godfather) - product placement scene at our sponsor’s Pizzeria
“Popcorn” (by Hot Butter) - for a pixelated fast motion sequence
“Also Sprach Zarathustra” (Richard Strauss, 2001: A Space Odyssey) - for the dramatic discovery of a black door
“We’ll Meet Again” (Vera Lynn, Dr. Strangelove) - for the launch of nuclear missiles
“I Love You Phil” (Francis Lai, Love Story) - the final confrontation
“Bozo Barrett” (ibid) - sad parting of femme fatale and upbeat finale
A couple of sci-fi films followed, one tracked with cues from The Andromeda Strain and Forbidden Planet (both from my TV recordings, sound effects and dialog clips unavoidably included). By the time I made a stop-motion dinosaur epic, I had “Great Science Fiction Film Music” LP to swipe from. Advertised among the offerings from the Science Fiction Book Club (another staple of the time), I was initially more excited by FX artist Jim Danforth’s cover painting than the composer’s name. After a couple of ear-tingling spins on my phonograph, however, I was convinced that my $4.00 purchase was well worth it.
I happily poached music from all of the films on the disc, freely mixing Psycho with The Day The Earth Stood Still and not caring about the dissonance. Bennie’s music worked wonders to elevate my primitive animation and rear-projection in The Unknown Element... the ripoff Rhedosaurus careened through cardboard sets while our able crew of high school thespians emoted at the non-existent terrors offscreen. I could see how music filled the gaps in storytelling, bringing meaning to even the blankest of expressions and the clumsiest blocking. I looked forward to making (and scoring) more summer sci-fi films.
The future was looking pretty bleak according to the current crop of sci-fi, but my brain lit up with more ideas for my own films that would never be made. I dreamt of adapting obscure short stories by Arthur C. Clarke with robots made of aluminum dryer hoses. We had a half-baked idea about albino pet alligators and marijuana fields in the NYC sewer system. I could see and hear a cautionary eco-tale about students battling an evil corporation for the last flower on earth. Trust me, they all would have been better with the eerie, ominous sound of water chimes cribbed from The Omega Man soundtrack.
That single sound, a mournful tone produced by submerging metal discs into a barrel of liquid, was the sound of dystopia. It showed up again in Colossus: The Forbin Project when the titular AI declared itself the voice of World Control. And similar tones were struck throughout the Planet of the Apes series, where things just kept getting worse for humanity, only for them to repeat the cycle and start all over again. I was especially fond of the main titles from Conquest, whose primitive percussion played well against my stop-motion experiments with plasticine dinosaurs. Thank goodness for my new cassette recorder, which enabled me to capture an entire movie on both sides of a 120 min. tape. Well worth the $1.29 price tag.
There still wasn’t much money left over for record albums, especially since I was spending all my cash on super-8 film… and something else.
Star Trek had begun its second life in syndication, and those 79 episodes were stripped on WPIX five nights a week. That triggered a surge of fandom like no one had ever seen, and the first conventions began springing up in New York City. I missed the first two, but in 1974 we monster kids started attending Trek cons, Famous Monsters cons, and Comic Art cons in the city every couple of months. And those reruns provided the underscore for countless hours of makeup and costume work, as we cobbled together our homemade Mugato suits and Klingon blasters, stippling latex and stitching lamé while Gerald Fried and Fred Steiner were keeping up the tempo.
Of course I desperately wanted a recording of the Trek music, and of course no such thing was available. It was slim pickings for sci-fi TV, outside of Irwin Allen reruns, The Starlost and the occasional Night Gallery episode. But working head down on all manner of extra-curricular projects, I could count on hearing that Trek music every night of the week. The best episodes were worth watching three times a year, but even the weakest ones held up as background music.
The piece-de-resistance of my teen filmmaking was an adaptation of D. H. Lawrence’s The Rocking Horse Winner. The story of a young boy who can predict the outcome of horse races was awkwardly cast with a mix of adult and teenage non-actors. In its favor, however, were scenes filmed on location at a local racetrack, a sincere performance by my youngest brother R. Sikoryak in the lead—and an original jazz score! My high school pal Joe Grillo was/is a saxophonist who pulled together a quartet that improvised cues while watching the final cut. These young jazzers was admittedly under the influence of the fusion group Weather Report, but it was magic to hear the first underscore I could call my own. I hope to uncover the 1/4” tape in Dad’s attic, but I’m afraid the music will still have the unwelcome chattering backbeat of the projector. *sigh*
I didn’t get to commission any more original music for another few decades. But I was still happy to track in the best that Hollywood could offer. I remade my short 8mm film Planet, about a marooned astronaut, as Timeline, with two lost astronauts shot on 16mm (twice the cast, twice the film stock!) Again, we built the film around the music, starting with an elaborate spaceship ballet, and I turned to Herrmann again for his recording of The Planets to add a little stardust. His slightly ponderous take on the material, which drew criticism elsewhere, felt perfect to me. He made the music sound as big as, well, the planets themselves, and I looked forward to cutting up “Jupiter” and “Uranus” into evocative underscore.
That opus remains uncompleted, but I became obsessed with this new sensory experience. I couldn’t listen to music without watching how life around me played out with backing tracks. Once I got behind the wheel of a car, I’d start arbitrarily changing lanes or hitting the gas, just to go with the music. (No wonder I cracked-up Dad’s car 3 or 4 times.) It took me awhile to learn the right lessons about defensive driving, but lessons about film music came much more quickly.
Safely grounded after my latest road misadventure, I’d cue up a tape recording or an LP and start imagining new movies from a few bars of music. Three of my favorite recordings inspired endless storyboards and treatments for a gothic horror, artist’s biopic and an Arabian fantasy, more monster-kid movies that were never made—even though the scores for Frankenstein The True Story, Lust for Life and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad played on and on. There was enough artistic juice in those pieces for a dozen backyard epics.
I think we can agree—whether we are making movies or just living life, it all sounds better with a good soundtrack.
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