Book: Louis and Bebe Barron’s Forbidden Planet (2005)

November 15, 2010 | By

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Rating: Excellent

Publisher: Scarecrow Press / ISBN: 0-8108-5670-0 / Format: Trade Paperback / Date: 2005

Author:  James Wierzbicki

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Review:

It took the influence of Kate Daubney, editor of the Scarecrow Press Film Score Guide, to convince author James Wierzbicki that he was the best person to tackle an examination of the first electronic feature-length score, and clear up several misconceptions that have marginalized and denigrated the revolutionary soundtrack by Louis and Bebe Barron as an exotic pastiche of sound effects.

Wierzbicki, however, faced a more immediately problem: there were never any musical notations for Forbidden Planet, so how could he break it down and begin a cursory analysis? As luck would have it, the Barrons knew their reputation had suffered, so in 1977, they remixed a somewhat edited version of their score for an LP release, via Planet Records. (The stereo score -with some gimmicky panning effects – is still available on CD from GNP Crescendo, and has stayed in print for more than 30 years.)

Branded “Electronic Tonalities” by MGM executive producer Dore Schary, that official film credit, then and now, gives the impression that the Barrons had simply collaborated with MGM’s own sound effects department to create a hugely elaborate effects track.

Wierzbicki’s primary goal, through formal analysis, was to prove the Barron’s score is and always was musical. Using the soundtrack album and DVD to compare the sounds authored by the composers, Wierzbicki was able to catalogue distinguish many of the effects from score elements, although he admits that, “in this aurally peculiar film, it is often difficult to distinguish between underscore and sound effects.”

With a hard list cues, Wierzbicki listened for recognizable patterns, sounds, and motifs, and discovered discernable keys used by the composers, but his efforts to actually notate cues – even in a few bars – was still tough because the sounds aren’t formal musical notes. Shimmers, warbles, clip-clop, and wobbles are some of the adjectives used, but readers will find the terms are quite apt, if not accurate, in describing the sounds and textures used by the Barrons throughout the score.

(Replaying the album will unearth increasingly fascinating aspects of the score, although one intriguing moment in Track 19, “Battle with the Invisible Monster,” will prick the ears of more astute film music fans. At 2:40 into the cue, a low sonic triplet starkly recalls the opening synth motif in Jerry Goldsmith’s opening titles for Logan’s Run, making one wonder if his quotation was a deliberate in-joke to a highly influential work in science-fiction scoring, and electronic music.)

The cue-by-cue examinations for album and film are a bit dry at times, but that’s largely because one needs to hear the CD beforehand for a vital frame of reference, and be familiar with the film’s major sequences, The cue breakdowns, however, also include descriptions of the film’s narrative points, deleted dialogue, and cue sections that were shortened, repeated or lengthened in both the film and CD versions.

(Several key magazine articles and books are referenced, making Wierzbicki’s book equally invaluable in tracing some of the major pieces and interviews that were published over the past twenty years about the film, its composers, and its unusual development from a B-level production to an A-level release with ground-breaking special effects.)

As depicted in a series of graphs, the composers also employed a monster motif, themes for Robby the Robot and the story’s young lovers, and ancient Krell music – the latter being the original reason the Barrons were hired in the first place. Their otherworldly sounds were first heard in a 1952 short film, Bells of Atlantis. During the course of composing more Forbidden Planet material, their efforts were sufficiently impressive that plans for a formal orchestral score, let alone a traditional love theme, were dumped.

Perhaps the most intriguing section of the book is the first third, which gives a concise and amusing chronology of early developments in electronic instruments, and the use of Theremin and the Ondes Martinot in many film scores, including several some readers may not have been familiar with (such as a number penned by Robert E. Dolan).

Just as intriguing is the Barron’s own work that began with John Cage, but led to a parting of spirits when the couple focused more on creating weird sounds through custom-made circuits. The actual design of the ‘living’ or ‘cybernetic’ circuits died with its creator, Louis Barron, but it was apparently Bebe’s guidance that shaped and arranged the sounds into musical patterns. The couple used early reel-to-reel tape recorders with playback heads to re-record sounds at different speeds, pitches, clusters, and so on.

Louis essentially crafted his circuits as controllable entities that emitted strange sounds when they blushed with energy and died slowly, or in an explosive eruption. Through each playback pass and recording, Bebe Barron discovered a tremendous level of noise, but she also found new sounds that lay hidden beneath the clarity of a hi-fi recording.

Critics might find that, in spite of Wierzbicki’s book, the Barron’s score is still just prehistoric sound design, much in the way effects, ambient tracks, and custom-made sounds are shaped into atmospheric swathes or functional cues for a Dolby 5.1 playback, but sound design issupposed to serve the drama in a manor that straddles the border between impressionism, and the hyper-reality of a film’s diegetic sound.

(In most cases, the sound effects you hear are chosen to convey a simulated realism and a sense of acceptable normalcy, such as a water coming to a boil in a conventional suburban kitchen; or are isolated for a specific dramatic function, like the kettle’s whistle emitting a disturbingly elongated shrill. Sound design adds layers of tones, textures, and low-level frequencies to turn that kitchen locale into a harsh sterile room, and with unsettling mechanical vibrations from a nearby fridge.)

Some historians and fans cite Gil Melle’s 1971 score for The Andromeda Strain as the first true electronic score, which was composed using primal synthesizers and electronic gear, but in a February 1986 interview in Keyboard with Ted Greenwald, Louis Barron rather viciously railed against synthesizers, saying the technology “is designed to do something precisely and repetitively, even if the repetition is just the cycles of a sine wave. It’s locked in, it’s lobotomized… It simply expresses what you want it to express, nothing more.”

Louis Barron’s defensive stance for his living circuits certainly helped polarize critics into accepting, or shucking, the Forbidden Planet score as true electronica, and while the division will continue to exist among purists, Wierzbicki’s book will be of great interest to film music and film fans for supporting the score’s position as early electronica, and for the author being critical of specific cues when they fail to support a scene as designed – an important aspect that demonstrates the author’s detailed appreciation is well-balanced.

Warner Bros.’ new DVD release of the film in November of 2006 also adds more reference materials for fans and readers of the book, as Forbidden Planet, originally released theatrically in stereo, has been remastered in Dolby 5.1. Along with archival goodies, the 2-disc set comes with Robby the Robot’s other fifties film and TV appearances in 1958: the MGM feature film, The Invisible Boy, and the Thin Man episode, “Robot Client.” Some of the genre films that re-used chunks of the Barrons’ score, such as From the Earth to the Moon (1958) and Curtis Harrington’s nutty Queen of Blood (1966), are still unavailable on DVD.

Other volumes in the Scarecrow Film Score Series include Vol. 1: Gabriel Yared’s The English Patient, Vol. 2: Danny Elfman’s Batman, Vol. 3: Ennio Morricone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Vol. 4: Louis and Bebe Barron’s Forbidden Planet, Vol. 5: Bernard Herrmann’s The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Vol. 6: Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, Vol. 7: Mychael Danna’s The Ice Storm, and Vol. 8: Alex North’s A Streetcar Named Desire.

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.© 2010 Mark R. Hasan

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Related links:

Book Reviews:  Vol. 2: Danny Elfman’s BatmanVol. 3Ennio Morricone’s The Good, the Bad and the UglyVol. 5Bernard Herrmann’s The Ghost and Mrs. Muir

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