Iconic film and TV soundtracks – an endangered species


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I grew up during a time when I took for granted that popular TV shows and movies would have memorable intro music or theme songs.

My particular favourite was the intro for The Six Million Dollar Man, composed by Oliver Nelson. Combined with clips of astronaut Steve Austin’s crash and transformation into a bionic man, along with the grim voiceover by his mentor Oscar Goldman, the entire package was thrilling and I never tired of sitting through it each week. At school, 8- and 9-year olds (myself included) would run around the playground in slow motion humming the tune as their personal background soundtrack. Another tune that gives me goosebumps to this day is the Hawaii Five-O opening theme, composed by Morton Stevens and performed by the famous instrumental rock band The Ventures. I can still recall the montage of surf waves, buildings and faces that was perfectly synced with the track, made so dynamic through zoom, jump cuts and shaky cam shots. And the theme music of the original Star Trek, composed by Alexander George and bonded with that opening monologue by William Shatner, is surely one of the most recognized around the world.

I discovered a few years ago while researching old TV tunes that Lalo Schifrin was the genius behind two other iconic intros – the Mission: Impossible theme which has been kept alive by the feature films over the years (loved the version that U2’s Larry Mullen Jr. and Adam Clayton concocted for the first movie in 1996) and the minimalist intro for The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Schifrin also composed the original theme for Starsky and Hutch, but it was replaced from the 2nd season onwards by Tom Scott’s groovy synthesizer-based piece which is the version that pretty much everyone remembers.

Another favourite was M*A*S*H*, the tune became even more poignant for me when I discovered later that the accompanying theme song was titled Suicide is Painless. Of course, when it came to songs, it’s the happy ones that I would sing along with; and the two that lift my heart to this day are the intro songs of Happy Days and The Greatest American Hero.

There weren’t that many British shows that I watched, but of course the opening theme for Doctor Who remains well known to this day, with the show having been revived in 2005 and introduced to a whole new generation.

Later on in the 70’s as I got to around the age of 10, I started watching movies. This was mostly on grainy VHS and occasionally on TV – we didn’t have dedicated movie channels back then. And so it was that I came across the amazing Superman and Star Wars themes by John Williams, the quirky intro for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly by Ennio Morricone, the playful Pink Panther theme by Henry Mancini and of course, the theme for James Bond which has remained popular over the years even though it is built around the very dated surf rock sound of the 60’s. Many years later, as I watched other films from the 60’s and 70’s, I came across many more memorable themes such as Nino Rota’s evocative (and so Italian) soundtrack for The Godfather or Elmer Bernstein’s rousing score for The Magnificent Seven and John Williams’ scary score for Jaws. I think the last iconic theme from this era was John Williams’ signature tune for Indiana Jones from Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981.

In comparison, the only contemporary TV show themes that I consider memorable or iconic are Mark Snow’s theme for The X-Files and Ramin Djawadi’s complex and multi-layered theme for Game of Thrones. Sure, I watch very little TV these days, but even when it comes to movies, I can’t think of anything memorable or instantly recognizable that has been written in the past decade. I would have to go back to 1993’s surprisingly mellow and evocative Jurassic Park theme by John Williams and James Horner’s work for Titanic; I think these are the last of the ‘classic film tunes’. Howard Shore’s music for The Lord of the Rings is also very good, but frankly I had to go online and search for the tune on YouTube because I couldn’t remember what it sounded like, just that I liked it a lot. I do have some personal favourites from recent years like Ramin Djawadi’s entire OST for Pacific Rim, or John Powell’s work for The Italian Job and The Bourne Identity both of which I have written about previously; but I doubt very much that you could classify these tunes as widely popular or iconic.

One of the reasons that the quality and distinctiveness of soundtracks has reduced over the years (especially in movies) is that film makers increasingly rely on existing pop and rock songs to fill out the film soundtrack. I call this lazy composing and have a real problem with it. It was innovative when the Bee Gees composed an entire album of hit songs for Saturday Night Fever in 1977 and nostalgic when Cameron Crowe injected a bunch of rock classics into Almost Famous in 2000 and of course, we all love director James Gunn’s mixtape selection for Guardians of the Galaxy. But now I feel that every movie (starting with the trailer) is using popular songs rather than coming up with catchy original compositions. How nice it would be to once again fall in love with a piece of music and have it stay with you for the rest of your life as a part of the memory of a beloved movie or TV show…

Fortitude picks up from where True Detective left off


In the past few years, Scandinavian or Nordic Noir has given new meaning to the word ‘bleak’. The Bridge, The Killing and Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy have found fans all over the world with their dark, morally complex but minimalist storytelling. Last year, HBO dropped some of that bleak into the swamps of Louisiana to create the memorable True Detective. The somber and eerie opening sequence, powered by the song Far From Any Road (by the alternative country act The Handsome Family) sets the tone for the show. Series creator Nic Pizzolatto’s layered non-linear script is marbled with some seriously mind-bending dialogue; little wonder that twin leads Harrelson and McConaughey were both nominated for their acting at the Golden Globes, the Emmies and the SAG awards.

I typically don’t watch crime dramas, so I’m not in the best position to comment if True Detective is influencing the look and feel of other American and British crime dramas. But one show that very obviously seems to borrow from it is Fortitude, the new murder mystery airing on Sky Atlantic and available on Amazon Instant Video.

The title sequence, like that of True Detective, features stark visuals set to an eerie theme song performed by husband-and-wife Swedish duo Wildbirds & Peacedrums. Even the all-cap title fonts appear similar! In both shows, nature itself is a significant character in the story – the deadly Louisiana swamps being replaced by a polar bear infested Arctic landscape. But once again, it’s the humans who prove to be deadlier than nature, especially those wielding political and administrative power.

In the show, the township of Fortitude is home to an international community of professionals, mainly researchers but also the people required to maintaing the supporting infrastructure of a school, convenience store, hospital, police station, transportation, etc. It’s this amalgam of muti-national and multi-ethnic characters which forms the real landscape of Fortitude. Into this landscape steps Detective Chief Inspector Morton, sent from London to investigate the suspicious death of a British citizen.

Just as Woody Harrelson and Matt McConaughey lit up True Detective with some big screen acting chops, it’s Stanley Tucci who does the honors as DCI Morton in Fortitude. Sharing the screen space with him is the reigning queen of Nordic Noir, Sofie Gråbøl, star of the original Danish version of The Killing. Other familiar faces include Michael Gambon (professor Dumbledore from the Harry Potter films) and former Doctor Who star, Christopher Ecclestone. The other actors come from the small screen or stage and as with most British produced dramas, it is refreshing to see ordinary faces, not the square jawed, surgically enhanced features of actors cast in most American shows; in fact True Detective (and most HBO signature shows) is a welcome exception to this trend and that is what added to its appeal.

Having watched the first 3 episodes of Fortitude, I cannot say that it matches up to the quality of Nic Pizzolatto’s writing, but it has made for compelling viewing so far. However, with 13 episodes in the season (and no guarantee that it will complete its story in one season), there is certainly a risk that the viewer may lose his fortitude before the story is over and done with.

Did an Abbott and Costello movie provide the template for Scooby Doo’s mystery stories?


The early 70’s cartoon show Scooby Doo, Where Are You! was a big part of my childhood entertainment. I never tired of its tried and tested story template:

Scooby and his 4 friends would be passing through a town; they encounter a supernatural phenomenon and decide to investigate, during which they individually or collectively have encounters with the ghost/ creature/ monster; they eventually use their collective ingenuity to reveal that the phenomenon was a hoax being used to hide some sort of criminal enterprise. Each of the 5 characters played a clearly defined role – Fred was handsome and heroic, Velma was the nerdy, intelligent type, Daphne was…well, just good looking and would end up frequently in a damsel-in-distress situation, Shaggy and Scooby mostly just wanted to eat a lot and stay clear of danger, although Scooby saved the day on most occasions through some inadvertent act of bravery.

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This formula worked so well that Scooby Doo became an iconic character for Hanna-Barbera productions and the CBS network, staying on screen for another 30 odd years through spin-offs, movies, reruns, crossovers and reboots.

Earlier this week, I was catching up on another one of my childhood favorites, the comedy duo of Abbott and Costello. I had seen a couple of their movies as a kid and was a big fan of the 5 minute Abbott and Costello cartoons (Hanna-Barbera produced 156 of these short cartoons in the late 60’s after Costello’s death) After re-watching one of their biggest hits Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, I decided to check out some films of theirs that I hadn’t yet seen; the first one that I picked was another comedy-horror film, 1941’s highly regarded Hold That Ghost.

Half way through Hold That Ghost, it suddenly struck me that I was watching a virtual template of a Scooby Doo episode – Five acquaintances are stuck on a rainy night in a house that appeared to be haunted…a dead body that appeared and disappeared, hidden rooms and closets, spooky sounds, etc. But most of all, the characters themselves seemed to closely mirror the 5 friends from Scooby Doo…Abbott and Costello were clearly the Shaggy and Scooby duo, Richard Carlson (extreme left) is the ‘Fred’ equivalent as heroic, handsome and intelligent Dr. Jackson, comedic actress Joan Davis (2nd from right) is the ‘Velma’ character – intelligent but not particularly brave, Evelyn Ankers (2nd from left) was the pretty damsel-in-distress, the ‘Daphne’ character.

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I found it almost uncanny how well this movie seemed to be the template for the Scooby Doo show, although strangely I have not found a single online reference or acknowledgement of the similarities in characters and plot devices. Given that Hanna-Barbera would have researched all the A & C movies in detail while producing those 5 minute shorts in 1967-68, it is not unthinkable that Hold That Ghost would have influenced both the narrative and character templates of Scooby Doo, Where Are You! just a year later. This would have been a much tougher stunt to pull in today’s age of corporate lawyers and IP rights protection!

Thunderbirds are Go! again


I’ve just seen the new promotional photo released for the upcoming reboot of classic 1960s British TV show Thunderbirds. The show, scheduled to air in the UK in 2015, is titled Thunderbirds are Go and is being produced by ITV and WETA (Peter Jackson’s company which created the special effects for Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies and King Kong).

The new CGI-based reboot will once again centre around the secretive International Rescue organization, led by ex-astronaut Jeff Tracy and his 5 sons (Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John), who are featured in the new promotional picture.

When the original Thunderbirds ran on British TV in the mid-60s, it became a cult hit among young boys. The show used marionette puppets and incredibly detailed scale models (for a TV show of that time) to create a very believable high-tech world of the year 2065. I remember watching this show as a kid and being completely blown away by the scale of the settings and the various air-, sea- and spacecraft featured. I was so very excited when a live-action movie version came out in 2004, but it turned out to be an embarrassing critical and commercial failure. Perhaps the charm of the show lay in the artificiality of its puppets and it could not ever translate into the modern age, I thought.

So, I am hoping that a CGI version which creates a similar look and feel on the small screen can bring back the thrill of the original show. Anyway, while reading up about the upcoming show, I discovered that there was a 1966 theatrical film based on the show called Thunderbirds Are Go and the entire film was available on YouTube.

I thoroughly enjoyed watching it this afternoon. The plot centres around the flight of the Zero-X manned mission to Mars. The opening sequence featuring the multi-stage spacecraft taking off is scifi fanboy’s dream.

There are two amusing anecdotes connected with this movie. One of the astronauts Paul Travers was modeled on Sean Connery who had become world famous as James Bond by that time. This picture doesn’t do it justice, but if you check the clip online, you’ll see it’s a fair resemblance.

And there is a bizarre dream sequence in which one of the younger Tracy boys goes to a night club and sees Cliff Richard and the Shadows performing (surprisingly accurately depicted in their marionette form) a song Shooting Star which was written and performed specifically for the film by the great man himself! Here’s what he looks like in his marionette form.

And here’s the cover of the single Shooting Star, featuring a still from that dream sequence in which Cliff Richard is the chauffeur of a 6-wheeled pink Rolls Royce in which the young man is sitting in the back seat with fellow secret agent Lady Penelope, while the other band members are seen sitting on the car and playing along. Yes, I did say it was a bizarre sequence!

Yup, when you insert a sequence like this in the middle of scifi film, you can guess why the 1966 movie failed to replicate the success of the show! I’m pretty sure we won’t be seeing anything like this in the upcoming TV reboot…

 

 

Under the Dome premiere delivers the goods


The premiere episode of CBS drama Under the Dome, based on Stephen King’s highly acclaimed 2009 novel, delivered giant ratings when it debuted a few days ago. I haven’t read the novel yet and I understand that several plot elements of the  TV show vary from that of the novel. Given that the TV script is written by Brian K. Vaughan, that’s perfectly fine by me. You see, Mr. Vaughan wrote the outstanding post-apocalyptic graphic novel series Y: The Last Man from 2002-08, which explored what would happen in a world where every male living being suddenly died. The series – much like Max Brooks’ World War Z – used a post-apocalyptic setting to evaluate how social and political structures would respond to a calamitous event…how strongly would the veneer of civilization hold in the face of the unthinkable.

I think Mr. Vaughan is bringing much the same thinking to his writing on Under the Dome. How will the citizens of a small town in North-eastern US respond when a single event takes loved ones away and leaves you having to defend your way of life against forces that you have no understanding of? Some people look to take advantage of such a situation while it brings out the best in others, frequently from those who have never demonstrated much altruism in normal times.

Another novel which explores a similar situation, although in a spatially inverted manner, is Eric Flint’s 1632. In that novel, a town in West Virginia mysteriously is transported into the year 1632 and transposed into the middle of Germany. I found many parallels in the story structure of the early chapters of 1632 and the pilot episode of Dome.

I really hope the showrunners of Dome can keep the momentum and quality going into the 2nd episode and beyond. I had similarly high expectations with J.J. Abrams’ series Revolution a few months ago. The premiere episode was directed by Iron Man‘s Jon Favreau and was really good. Thereafter, it went downhill, primarily because of the irritating Matheson family, especially Charlie (Tracy Spiridakos) and to a lesser extent her mother Rachel (Elizabeth Mitchell). Even the presence of intriguing characters like Major Tom Neville (Giancarlo Esposito) wasn’t enough to save the show for me.

Similarly, I noticed that the pilot episode of Under the Dome had great credentials – executive produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by Niels Arden Oplev, the man who directed the original Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Hopefully with the solid source material from Stephen King and the adapted writing from Brian Vaughan, the subsequent episodes will maintain standards. The other reason I have hope is that the casting seems to be better than that of Revolution. Although the father-son combo of ‘Big Jim’ and Junior Rennie are going to be a handful to deal with, there are likeable characters like Linda the cop (Natalie Martinez, who had such a good role as the cop’s wife in last year’s End of Watch), Julia the journalist (Rachel Lefevre, who plays the vampire Victoria in the Twilight movies), the precocious kid Joe McAlister (played by Colin Ford) and the mysterious stranger ‘Barbie’ (Mike Vogel) who just missed leaving town before the dome fell.

The show is a bit violent and gory, but what would you expect of an adaptation of a Stephen King novel? And I have to admit, the bit with the cow was one of the best scenes in the episode!

I understand that the scientific explanation of the dome will differ in the show vs. the novel (although I haven’t read the novel, I know what causes the dome to happen), so that’s a good trick by the showrunners to keep people hooked till the end of the series, even if they’ve read the book. The only thing I am uncertain about is the likelihood that CBS will make this an open-ended story lasting for months (and therefore extending beyond its current 13-episode first season order), unlike the King novel in which the story lasts just a week or so. I am not keen on an endless wild goose chase like Lost (for which Mr. Vaughan was a story editor and co-producer for several episodes, by the way), where ultimately the sub-plots get so convoluted and characters become increasingly weird, that it becomes tough for the writers to resolve the story in a sensible way. No matter how good a story is, there can always be too much of a good thing!

And one more Apocalypse


In relation to my earlier post about the different types of apocalypses popping up in comics, novels, TV shows and movies these days, I just thought of one more. This one is an apocalypse caused by the disappearance of all electrical power and the resultant collapse of society.

I first came across this concept when reading reviews of S.M. Stirling’s 2005 alternate history novel Dies The Fire. In this book, a mysterious event – referred to as “The Change” – occurs which alters the laws of physics in such a way that electricity and gunpowder no longer work. Naturally, civilization collapses and much of the global population is wiped out. The book chronicles the lives of the survivors, some of whom revert to farming, while others become militaristic. As you can see, it starts to look very much like the Middle Ages. The book was so successful, that it has spawned 2 sequels and another 6 spin-off novels.

Then some months ago, J.J. Abrams announced a new TV show with an almost identical premise (without even having the good grace to acknowledge S.M. Stirling’s existing concept), although in this case, only electricity has stopped, but gunpowder still works. The series Revolution, premiered on NBC in September with the pilot episode directed by none other than Iron Man‘s Jon Favreau. It was among the best reviewed and most watched shows premiering in the Fall season.

The only worry with this one is that J.J. Abrams is good at setting up intriguing concepts, but tends to allow the plots and sub-plots to get too complex as the series progresses…and doesn’t always know how to bring it all to close at the end of the show’s run.