CD: Poseidon Adventure, The (1972)

November 18, 2010 | By

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Rating: Excellent

Label: La-La Land Records/ Released: April 27, 2010

Tracks & Album Length: 28 tracks / (60:39)


Special Notes: 20-page colour booklet with liner notes by Jeff Bond / Limited to 3000 copies


Composer: John Williams



In 1972, John Williams scored the first of his three high-profile disaster films, two of which were for producer / disaster genre pioneer Irwin Alen.

Williams’ work with Allen actually went as far back as 1965 when he was hired to score the classic Lost in Space series, as well as the themes for the similarly juvenile fantasy and sci-fi shows The Time Tunnel (1966) and Land of the Giants (1968).

Allen recognized Williams had a gift for title themes as well as dramatic underscore that went to the essence of a film’s characters and drama, and the composer was also one type who didn’t spray-paint a film with a mass of cues. Williams knew when and how to move in and out of a scene and write around dialogue, emphasize striking visuals, and work around the genre’s second-most vital component after visuals: sound effects.

Without crashes and explosions, a film like The Poseidon Adventure would lack impact, even though, as with every disaster film, it’s about a small group of ordinary people struggling to get from Point A to B, with all manor of bad crap getting in their way, and the most annoying members dying now and then.

Poseidon, like Williams’ other great score for Allen, The Towering Inferno (1974), was based on a literary source, but the tale was ironed out to maximize the special effects and scope offered by a widescreen epic originally released in 70mm with 6-track sound.

As popular as Williams’ score was among genre fans, it took years before it received a legit CD release. A bootleg disc of mono tracks (plus the vocal song “The Morning After”) appeared in the nineties under the Johnny Boy label, and then in 1998 Film Score Monthly brought out their own CD, which gathered surviving music from Williams’ The Paper Chase (1973), Conrack (1974), and Poseidon; in all three cases, whatever music had survived over thirty years wasn’t always in its original stereo form.

Even Poseidon on home video was never in true stereo, as the old laserdisc edition featured rechanneled stereo tracks to give the mix a bit depth. Fox’ current DVD offers up a Dolby 5.1 mix, but the score on the FSM CD remained a patchwork of mono and stereo tracks, and one could argue the search for true stereo cues was a minor Holy Grail for film music preservationists.

According to his liner notes for this new CD, Jeff Bond (who also co-wrote the notes for the 1998 disc) explains the stereo tracks were never lost, but their condition and flaws made it tough for FSM to create clean stereo mixes. With big leaps in technology, the elements could now be cleaned up in ProTools (something that will also benefit the film’s inevitable Blu-ray release).

For La-La Land’s 2010 edition, music has been organized into a chronological presentation of the score (roughly 35 mins.), and various alternates and the film’s source and vocal cues (25 mins. worth) make up the disc’s second half.

Now in stereo, the nuances of Alexander Courage’s orchestrations reveal the striking colours Williams created to evoke a fluid mass that will soon to threaten the integrity of the world’s largest ocean liner, the Poseidon. Rumbling bass undercurrents and waves of eddying string patterns set up the ocean’s power, while brass and a reverberating metallic tone (not dissimilar to the ‘blaster beam’ used by Jerry Goldsmith in Star Trek) evoke the danger that besets the world’s biggest ocean liner.

The “Main Title” contains the film’s primary theme which refers to the human struggle of the story’s wandering survivors. The cue’s opening bass and metallic imagery are replaced with a step-like rhythm that foreshadows the survivor’s journey, as they climb up and around areas to get to the surface where there’s light and air. Williams refers to that endpoint with a swelling of strings that match the tones of a chorus.

More melodic and soothing music appears in “Rogo and Linda” (a cue unused) and the treackly song “The Morning After,” but the optimism in those cues is contrasted by various crises most of the main characters seem to be experiencing right from the film’s beginning: there’s feuding Rogos; the priest who’s about a foot away from tearing off his habit and getting hammered because of personal demons and big mouth; and the two arguing kids who eventually bond and set aside their differences once the ship goes topsy-turvy.

Those whose lives seem ideal – the career of “free spirit” singer Nonnie, her romance with a bandmate, and her affections for the ship’s purser; Belle’s devotion to her husband – are nearly destroyed by the massive wave that inverts the ships and sends passengers into lots of fragile, glassy surfaces.

Poseidon was the first real meaty film where Williams could go experimental and weird using his extraordinary gift for orchestral composition. The dissonance in the opening title music is a mere droplet of the experimentation in subsequent cues. The snarling brass and metallic reverberations in “The Big Waver / The Aftermath” give way to eerie chords, and whole tones lose any semblance of harmony, and become pliable, as if a large mass keeps exerting pressure.

Williams then brings up a quiet triadic figure, then bass piano hits and eerie descending chords on woodwinds, foreshadowing a distant danger that’s making a rapid advance to the ship. Part of the cue wasn’t used in the film, and Allen’s reliance on sound effects again illustrated Williams’ correct instincts in scoring just key dramatic moments.

“Raising the Christmas Tree” is the first cue as well as the first time the main theme (and that metallic tone) is recapped, and it plays after the wave has struck. The cue’s placement also comes after a long period of silence; once the ship is inverted, we’re subjected to the same sounds as the characters, as well as the sonic vacuum that exists in their underwater coffin. There’s also the sounds of chaos – bickering, screaming, crying – and producer Allen basically let emotional sounds ride the soundtrack before the music signaled the next stage of the story’s progression.

“Nonnie and Red / Up the Tree” is comprised of the main theme’s midsection, but it lacks further development and closes with several unsustained chords which relate to the group’s murky, labyrinthine journey. That discontinuous approach, as well as the score’s often brief cues, is further goosed with Williams’ use of dissonance and strange tones, of which the most striking (albeit annoying to the ear) is an electronic squeal that permeates “Death’s Door / The Upturned Gallery.”

Another unique effect occurs in “Through the Galley,” where the horror of fire and physical chaos is scored with pliable notes and sustained chords – an approach that’s rather reminiscent of Alex North’s writing (particularly the plastic notes in “The Fire Burns”, a sequence where fire foreshadows the future of Caesar’s son in 1963’s Cleopatra.)

In “Search for the Engine Room,” Williams captures some screen action and character confusion using a skittering piano over uneasy notes, and he frequently returns to direct quotes of the first bars of the “Main Title,” including the eddying string motifs.

“The Morning After” is also quoted in “Barber Shoppe Scene” and early into “Hold Your Breath”; in the latter cue, Williams uses the theme in its most elemental form and creates a revolving 5-note pattern for the underwater swim that’s fraught with danger and confusion. The use of high register notes and woodwinds also marks a rare moment of orchestral warmth, and foreshadows the group’s nearing the escape route after hours of seemingly aimless wandering.

Williams quotes the step-like portion of his journey theme – pretty much unheard since the group ascended the Christmas tree – in “The Red Wheel,” as well as a full-blooded version in “End Title (The Rescue).”

The “End Title” isn’t just the first full quotation of the film’s “Main Title” but a lament for the lost lives trapped in the ship, and the sheer exhaustion of the survivors. Williams thickens the cue with high register notes, thunderous percussion, and that amalgam of brass which mimic the sound of a mournful chorus.

Poseidon hits all the marks inherent to an Irwin Allen disaster flick, but Williams went far deeper in capturing human misery, the consequences of conflict, emotional scars, and the scope of puny banal lives rendered even more insignificant when the rage of an ocean has them slowly sinking into oblivion, with no help in sight.

The very image of an upturned boat makes it a near impossible feat to rescue lives because all access points are under deep water. The score, by its construction, infers that impossibility of escape through its sparseness and general lack of warmth. Even the “Main Title” feels cosmetically heroic.


The bonus cuts on La-La Land’s CD are a mix of source cues, alternate instrumental and vocal versions of “The Morning After” (still an insipid tune, 40 years later).

There’s also two rare alternate versions of the “Main Title” cue, which are more abstract than his music for Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and Images, which Williams composed the same year as Poseidon.

The alternate “Main Title” is a head-scratcher as to how it would’ve fit the film’s opening titles, since both takes are a mélange of orchestral effects that plunge the viewer into a state of utter discomfort. They’re brilliantly conceived, and sound like mini-portraits of drowning in slow motion, as someone takes breaths of water and sinks into darkness while every physical nerve ending goes numb. (The first alternate closes with weird vocal tones, whereas the second alternate just fades out.)

The alternate “End Title” seems to offer a different emphasis of brass and harder percussion, and its length is almost a minute shorter. The cue also contains some of the wow artifacts the CD producers had to fix, although the flaws are less piquant than what the liner notes suggest. The only noticeable differences are between the clean true stereo tracks (many of which were present on the FSM CD) and the damaged cues, whose fidelity was already poor; the only way to clean things up was to first ensure the orchestrations and performances came through clearly, and then focus on creating a sense of rudimentary stereo. The surviving film version of the “End Title” is a good example of where the elements were at their worst, but it’s still preferable to the flat (albeit clean) mono safety copy that FSM had to settle for in 1998.

Some of the ‘pliable’ sounds also make one ponder as to whether they may be residual effects from the damage, or were deliberate, and part of Courage’s orchestrations, as in “The Barber Shoppe Scene.” (Good illustrations of wow can be found in FSM’s early Fox score CDs, where damaged cues were presented at the end of the CD, as was done with 9 mins. of affected material in Prince Valiant. In that track, it sounds as though someone’s pulling on a ¼” reel to reel tape as its moving past the playback head.)

If the wow effects were the primary flaws La-La Land had to fix, then Poseidon is an example of how technology has advanced far enough to where some of the most messed up audio can be transformed into something very listenable (and one suspects some of the older FSM recordings might get some restoration treatment in the future).

In any event, for fans of the composer and disaster films, this is a mandatory album to have, but don’t get rid of the FSM CD, because it contains those selections from Paper Chase and Conrack.

Williams was ideal for the disaster genre, and while scoried the genre’s pinnacles  – Poseidon,Towering Inferno – he also got out when it started to become a parody of itself, as was the case in the awful, bloated mess that is Earthquake (1974).



© 2010 Mark R. Hasan


Related external links (MAIN SITE):

DVD / Film:  Lost in Space, Year 1 (1965-1966) — Prince Valiant (1954)


External References:

IMDB Soundtrack AlbumComposer Filmography


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