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December 28, 2017
Classic Film Music on Disc: The Best of 2017
Williams, Goldsmith, Mancini, Copland among top recordings by Jon Burlingame
For fans of classic movie music, 2017 was another banner year, for expanded versions of beloved soundtracks; initial releases of long-desired scores; and even re-recordings of classics. Advances in technology have made ancient recordings sound remarkably fresh, and a handful of unexpected, where-did-they-find-this? albums were cause for joy. Among our favorites of the past 12 months, listed alphabetically:
1.The Big Brawl (Quartet) Leave it to Lalo Schifrin to follow up his martial-arts classic Enter the Dragon with a wild jazz score for this 1980 Jackie Chan-versus-the-Chicago-mob action film. The original LP, only available in Japan, is now an expensive rarity, and this first-ever CD will delight fans of the composer (who would go on to much bigger box-office with Chan's Rush Hour movies).
2.A Boy Named Charlie Brown (Kritzerland) The long-awaited CD premiere of the music from the "Peanuts" gang's 1969 feature-film debut, minus the dialogue from the hard-to-find LP. Vince Guaraldi's jazzy original score, Rod McKuen's songs and John Scott Trotter's music direction were Oscar-nominated; this is a lost gem, rediscovered.
3.The Caine Mutiny (Intrada) This title is famous among film-music buffs, after the original RCA LP was quickly withdrawn and became a pricey collector's item. Its Max Steiner score was a 1954 Oscar nominee and contains some of the composer's most rousing martial music; it was the last of his 22 Humphrey Bogart films.
4.Captains Courageous (Intrada) Perhaps the best of the year's Golden Age collections, this 4-CD set presents music from 11 Franz Waxman scores dating from 1936 to 1961. Many are taken from very old acetate discs, yet the sound is surprisingly fresh. Several of the titles are classics: M-G-M's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, A Christmas Carol and Woman of the Year; and RKO's Suspicion for Alfred Hitchcock.
5.Close Encounters of the Third Kind / E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (La-La Land) The 40th anniversary of the former and the 35th of the latter, two of the crown jewels of the John Williams canon, were celebrated in a pair of 2-CD sets. Each presents the complete score in vastly improved sound, plus numerous extras and detailed notes that place the creation of the scores in historical context.
6.Damnation Alley (Intrada) Jerry Goldsmith wrote brilliant music for a host of not-very-good movies, this 1977 post-apocalyptic sci-fi thriller among them. Fox held the orchestral tracks but not the synthesizer elements, which were re-created by British expert Leigh Phillips for this, finally, fully realized soundtrack.
7.Doctor Dolittle (La-La Land) It was one of the era's biggest musicals, and while this Oscar-nominated 1967 film is considered a failure, its music (the songs by Leslie Bricusse, musical and vocal direction by Lionel Newman and Ian Fraser) remains timeless. This 2-CD set took producer Michael Matessino years to put together, and it's a delightful listen.
8.Duel in the Sun / Ben-Hur (Prometheus / Tadlow) Two lavish re-recording projects by producer James Fitzpatrick and conductor Nic Raine, performed by the City of Prague Orchestra and Chorus: Dimitri Tiomkin's epic 1946 Western, previously only available in suite form, and Miklos Rozsa's 1959 magnum opus for the Charlton Heston classic. Vibrantly performed and presented by the reigning experts in this field.
9.The Great Race (La-La Land) One of the year's most fun surprises was this 3-CD set of Henry Mancini's music for Blake Edwards' 1965 comedy. From the player-piano sounds of the era to his marches and polkas and the Oscar-nominated song "The Sweetheart Tree," this is a wonderful score that merited the deluxe treatment it received here.
10.La Dolce Vita (Quartet) Nino Rota's music for Fellini's 1960 film has never before been available in complete form (and never sounded so good). It's an eclectic mix of orchestral score, pop, jazz and familiar songs that helped to set the style as much as Marcello Mastroianni, Anita Ekberg and Anouk Aimee did in this classic of world cinema.
11.Mackenna's Gold, In Cold Blood (Intrada) Two major Quincy Jones scores make their American CD debut on a single disc: His only Western, the Grammy-nominated 1969 epic starring Gregory Peck, with Jose Feliciano vocals; and what may be his best dramatic score, the Oscar-nominated 1967 adaptation of Truman Capote's book about thrill killers in the Midwest.
12.Papillon / The Russia House (Quartet) Two of Jerry Goldsmith's greatest: his Oscar-nominated 1973 score for Franklin Schaffner's masterpiece of prison life and the desire for freedom; and one of his last great works, the colorful, jazz-inflected music for a John le Carre-penned love story set in Moscow. Both are complete for the first time in separate discs from this consistently surprising label.
13.Popeye (Varese Sarabande) Robert Altman's 1980 adaptation of E.C. Segar's comic-strip was widely criticized at the time, but its casting was brilliant (Robin Williams as the sailor, Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl, Paul Dooley as Wimpy) and its Harry Nilsson songs offbeat and touching. This is the album that Nilsson fans have always wanted: the complete soundtrack and all of the songwriters' demos on a second disc.
14.The Red Pony, The Heiress (Intrada) The ultimate Aaron Copland double-header: the great American composer's classic score for John Steinbeck's adaptation of his own novella, plus a first-ever release of his Oscar-winning music for the William Wyler film based on a novel by Henry James, both from 1949. Even when the sound is compromised, it's worth hearing, especially for Copland's original, rejected, main-title music for The Heiress.
15.The Red Shoes (Kritzerland) Brian Easdale's Oscar-winning score from the 1948 ballet classic opens this 2-CD set, but that's just the beginning. Music from 17 other great British films (from 1936 to 1955) by such greats as Arthur Bliss (Things to Come), William Walton (Henry V) and Ralph Vaughan Williams (Scott of the Antarctic) are included in vastly improved sound from prior releases.
16.Stanley & Iris, Pete 'n' Tillie (Varese Sarabande) Two obscure John Williams scores for Martin Ritt-directed love stories get an appropriately loving restoration. Stanley & Iris, expanded from a much shorter 1990 CD, and Pete 'n' Tillie, a warm score for a 1972 Carol Burnett film (basis for one of Williams' best songs, "Love's the Only Game in Town"), released for the first time.
17.Star Wars: A New Hope (Walt Disney) This 3-LP set of the original 1977 John Williams score, on 180-gram vinyl, is augmented by a 48-page hardcover book with outstanding essays on the film (by Jeff Bond) and the composer (by Jeff Eldridge). Lavishly illustrated with dozens of photos of both the film and the recording sessions, it's pricey ($150) but also the perfect coffee-table set for any Star Wars fan.
18.Stavisky (Quartet) Everyone knows Stephen Sondheim's Broadway hits (Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods, Follies), but how many realize that he composed a single film score, for French director Alain Resnais in 1974? It's an evocative, melancholy work, resonating with the period and the characters; this remastered edition offers the original 45-minute album plus another 23 minutes of previously unreleased material.
19.Titanic (La-La Land). Twenty years after its original release and two years after the composer's untimely death, James Horner's Oscar winner and his greatest accomplishment is enshrined in a beautifully packaged 4-CD set that includes his complete score, multiple extras including alternate and album takes, and even the period source music.
20.Two for the Road (Kritzerland) One of Henry Mancini's most romantic scores, third of his four for actress Audrey Hepburn, and criminally neglected until now. The 1967 LP was a re-recording, but this is the original London score recording complete with its masterful violin solos by jazz great Stephane Grappelli.
Honorable mention goes to a number of other favorite discs this year: Casino Royale (Quartet), a single-CD condensation of its now out-of-print restoration of Burt Bacharach's James Bond score; Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (Universal France), an incredible 5-CD collection of every Michel Legrand note from Jacques Demy's classic musical; The Hustler (Intrada), a long-overdue tribute to urban-jazz composer Kenyon Hopkins; and Barefoot in the Park / The Odd Couple (Varese Sarabande), a single-disc double bill of Neal Hefti scores for the '60s Neil Simon comedies.
©2017 Jon Burlingame