Publisher: Scarecrow Press/ ISBN: 0-8108-5856-8 / Format: Trade Paperback/ Pages: 380 / Date: 2007
Author: Royal S. Brown
Between 1983-2001, Royal S. Brown wrote a meaty column on film music for the classical-oriented Fanfare magazine, and he remains part of a select group of film music journalists & critics who were able to write about film music in a commercial publication. In the pre-MFTM era (yes, such a time once existed), fan-based magazines like Soundtrack! and CinemaScore were more precise in addressing the needs of fans, collectors, and genre enthusiasts, but Brown, alongside Page Cook in the much-missed film publication Films in Review, were rare venues where the average and refined cineaste or music fan could get an intelligent head’s-up on what new soundtracks were being released on LP and CD.
Comparatively, Cook’s column was highly idiosyncratic: he detested and berated John Barry, Bill Conti, and Maurice Jarre with memorable, colourful invective, but in later years he wrote mostly about soundtracks by Alfred Newman and Ken Darby, and little else. Cook’s (in)accuracies and biases were often cited by his detractors (particularly in an old Film Score Daily exchange), but his enthusiasm for the film music as a viable profession and art form were unquestionable – he just became a bit of cranky old fart, albeit with a generous heart for fans and their letters packed with myriad picky questions.
Royal S. Brown’s own negativity for Jarre – “[in Fatal Attraction] Jarre somehow continues to manage to convince people that he is the chosen spokesperson for the area he represents, in this case film music” – is similarly amusing and shocking, but unlike Cook, he admits there are times when Jarre’s music, even in part, can support a film, as in Jacob’s Ladder. Part of that fairness comes from Brown’s stance that a score can only be honestly assessed when it’s seen working in a film; you just don’t get the composer’s full intent on an album, though that separate experience should also be contrasted with the theatrical experience.
His abilities to be more flexible as well as frequently open-minded are aspects film music fans will appreciate in this hefty collection, which also forms a good resource for a few of foreign releases that haven’t really appeared in other publications, including some Russian titles. Film Musings, however, is also a sharp reminder of those great albums veteran collectors abandoned due to overplay. To paraphrase his review of Bernard Herrmann’s Music from Hitchcock Films (the classic London Phase-4 compilation), ‘This is music to get lost in again.’
Certainly the early columns will trigger some musical memories that were long ago imprinted by repeated plays on the turntable and CD, and it’s not unusual to have the exact segments pop into one’s mind, as Brown’s description of specific moments within a highlighted cue are spot-on, and will have one reaching for that long-neglected score for a re-acquaintance.
Scholarly and well-versed in musical theory and terminology, Brown’s prose is quite eloquent, and bubbles with genuine enthusiasm for the diverse CDs and LPs that landed en masse onto his desk (at least the perceived bi-monthly spectrum is far greater than Cook’s monthly purview). It’s sometimes surprising when Brown expresses keen interest in early synth scores, such as Gabriel Yared’s Invitation au voyage, or Pink Floyd’s More, which he prefers to “just about anything penned by Alfred Newman.” (Yes, he really wrote that). He’s equally appreciative of idiosyncratic composers like writer/director/composer Mike Figgis, and established and classically trained icons like Miklos Rozsa, and Bernard Herrmann.
Brown’s regard for a composer’s work isn’t fawning or adulatory, as he’s aware that even great minds get lazy and repeat themselves, or go in completely wrong directors (citing Herrmann’sObsession as a major blunder), or plagiarize themselves.
Naturally James Horner gets a bit of slagging, and Hornerites won’t be pleased with Brown’s criticisms of Titanic and the composer’s moments of self-plagiarism and classical (mis)appropriation in works like The Perfect Storm; in his review for the latter, Brown begins with a slow build of calm adjectives and a deliberately naïve hope that Horner finally managed to scribble an original theme, but he admits his worst fears were yet again realized halfway through the opening credit music: “But then – IT HAPPENED!”
At times the column dips into film review terrain, but it’s done in moderation, and with the intent to establish a score’s context; Brown was clearly an avid moviegoer during his Fanfare years, and it’s not unusual to find references to films and obscure works, like a David Lynch short. The columns are in chronological order, and one experiences the inevitable obsolescence of the LP and debut of full-digital CD recordings by labels like Marco Polo.
Brown’s longtime collecting and familiarity with specific soundtracks also means scores that have received multiple releases over the years are compared, weighed, and assessed in pretty fair terms (such as the glut of Vertigo CDs that followed the film’s restoration and theatrical re-release).
Occasionally a column is enhanced with a brief composer interview, and there are some bits with Howard Shore, John Ottman, and David Raksin; none are exhaustive or finely detailed, but they form interesting appendixes to those columns.
Certainly one aspect this collection fulfills is the dissemination of archival reviews – something we pretty much take for granted as review sites provide soundtrack reviews at the click. Most of the online archives deal with relatively recent CD releases, and while one can find assessments of the earliest and rarest CDs, there’s a whole chunk of LPs and foreign releases no one’s heard of; these were similarly covered in the fanzines, but those words have been long forgotten, and or hardcopies remain boxed up (like mine).
Aside from replacing the term soundtrack with “music-track” (something that’s a bit hard to adjust to), Brown has preserved his original views, and either dropped irrelevant columns entirely, or added updates and notations to further reading.
Running 380 pages, Film Musings is an excellent reference to recordings some may have missed or abandoned, and the only criticism with this publication is the thin binding that’ll start cracking if the heavy paper stock is bent too far back; readers should therefore treat this beefy archive with a bit more care than usual.
© 2007 Mark R. Hasan
Category: BOOK REVIEWS