DECCA 9816782 (7-CD)
reviewed by Neville Cohn
With SBS’s Movie Show having come to an end in its 18th year (after modest beginnings), the popular, long-running program hosted by David Stratton and Margaret Pomeranz is re-locating to ABC’s Channel 2. So this lavish, 7-CD set of 101 themes and songs from the movies becomes at one and the same time, the show hosts’ farewell to SBS (and one can only speculate on the ruefulness of SBS managers as their hugely popular cinema commentators vacate their Channel 28 chairs) and marvellous publicity for their move to ABC TV.
The set (running in excess of seven hours) covers movie music for the 80-year period 1933 to 2002. Why, one wonders, did the set not include movie music from the first-ever talkie with Al Jolson singing Mammy in The Jazz Singer (1927)? And it’s surely an oversight to have completely ignored films of the silent era because movies of the day were hardly ever entirely silent.
True, motion pictures of that era had no sound tracks as we understand them now but, more often than not, special music was composed for each movie and made available in arrangements that ranged from large orchestras (which played in the great movie palaces of the time) to ensembles of two or three (or even a lone piano) for screenings in small cinemas or church halls in towns and villages that had no dedicated cinema premises.
Paradoxically, the finest movie music isn’t represented in this collection because being so inextricably associated with the overall cinema experience, so perfectly complementing the visual aspect and establishing mood that, away from the movie it’s written for, it cannot survive in its own right. Like a fish out of water, such music, taken out of its cinematic context, is instantly in trouble and in very real danger of dying.
But there is a good deal of fine music purpose-written for the movies that does have a healthy and enduring existence away from the cinema, and there’s much of this in the collection.
Another very significant body of music on movie soundtracks consists of already-established music from the classics that assumes another life, sometimes very vigorous, and reaching sometimes millions of cinemagoers who might otherwise have remained ignorant of the existence of such music. One of the most famous examples is that of the slow movement of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 2 played, on screen, by famed Australian pianist Eileen Joyce in Brief Encounter (1946).
Then there are those many individual themes, purpose-written for a particular movie that are so instantly communicative that they haunt the mind forever: Lawrence of Arabia, The Wizard of Oz and Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Moon River).
Less frequently encountered are those scores, specifically written for movies, that are so musically substantial that they not only go on to an independent existence but find a place in the standard repertoire, such as Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra which is repeatedly performed around the world although the movie for which it was composed (in a series underwritten by Britain’s General Post Office!) has sunk into oblivion.
The compilers of 101 Themes must have invested an extraordinary amount of time to rummage through the archives to obtain some of the most meaningful recordings to make up this 7-CD set. It’s a wonderfully varied compendium with something to please even the most fussy listener with track one devoted to music for the original King Kong (1933) with its extravagant flourishes and striding motif that’s just the ticket for evoking images of this most savage of all movie gorillas.
Take your pick from the remaining 100 tracks – the eerie tread of Franz Waxman’s music for Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Irving Berlin’s unforgettable Top Hat, White Tie and Tails from the 1935 movie Top Hat, the touching love music for An Affair to Remember(1957), the sheer barbaric splendour of Miklos Rozsa’s score for Ben Hur (1959) – and Jean-Yves Thibaudet playing Chopin’s posthumous Nocturne in C sharp minor for Polanski’s 2002 movie The Pianist.
There’s also a bonus track of Stratton and Pomeranz in discussion.
All the films from which tracks were drawn from this set are listed in the book 101 Movies You Must See Before You Die (ABC Books).
Copyright 2004 Neville Cohn