Posted by Greg Ferrara on May 2, 2012
When I was younger, much younger, I used to listen to LPs (that would be “long-play records” for you youngsters out there, also known as vinyl) and eight tracks (yes, eight tracks) of movie and television shows snippets. Long before there was such a thing as a VCR or a Laser Disc player there was… well, nothing actually. Either you had a projector and a 16 mm print of the movie or tv show in question or you had audio only. This may seem strange to many but I assure you, it’s true. Audio only recordings of movies and television shows were sold quite regularly in the seventies and before. In 1978, I bought the highlights from the first three seasons of Saturday Night Live on eight track and listened to it again and again. I also had blooper albums, sound effects albums, comedy albums (Richard Pryor and Firesign Theater, mainly) and straight up narrative albums highlighting a murder mystery or a crime thriller story. As a result, I came to hear the movie (or tv show) and the music together as a kind of multi-instrumented orchestra so that when soundtrack albums started getting a little too polished by the eighties, I lost my feel for them. Fortunately, I’ve gotten it back.
By the 1980s soundtrack albums didn’t contain much dialogue or ambient foley work from the movie itself. Mainly, it was just the songs from the movie, maybe a score piece or two, and that’s about it. They had cleaned up the soundtrack album, turned it into a pop mill and hit the
My solution to this came in the form of a newfangled invention, the VCR (Video Cassette Recorder), specifically, one very early model I had that allowed me to put in a tape, connect the VCR to my stereo cassette player (God this terminology is making me sound old) and record from the videotape to the audiotape. I cannot overstate how fundamentally life-changing this was for me. Finally, I could record a movie I loved off of television and then record the sections I wanted to hear again and again onto audio cassette (then, presumably, take a drive in my Model T to the music store where I could make all the kids listening to the Victrola jealous).
I had tape after tape of movie music, sound effects and dialogue and with an even newer invention, the Sony Walkman, I could listen to it wherever I went. The thing is, I still record from movies! I have never, ever liked any studio version of Tubular Bells except the one on the closing credits of The Exorcist but the exact closing credits version isn’t available anywhere! So, I recorded it, twice. Once with the opening strings of the closing credits, once without. I can’t listen to Knocking on Heaven’s Door without L.Q. Jones amazingly rhythmic taunting of James Coburn just prior to the song’s appearance in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, so I don’t. I made my own version, with Jones’ dialogue in place. I even made a King Kong ringtone for my friend Andrew last year (he sometimes comments here). I don’t know if he ever used it but I was just happy to be able to do it.
Fortunately, things changed with soundtrack albums yet again, thanks to digital warehouses practically brimming with decades old content just waiting to find an audience. Soundtrack albums that were never available when I was a kid now are along with others, long out of print, for purchase from online streamers. Add to that the amount of people who purged their LP collections and suddenly, buying hard to find vinyl is no longer a frustrating search for a needle in a haystack (or a stylus, perhaps?). One second-hand store after another has great inventories of LPs for one or two dollars a piece, only going higher for the more famous collections. But who wants the more famous collections? Those you can get anywhere.
The point being that suddenly, old timey soundtrack albums are available once again. Some of my recent favorites were unavailable for years until the digital age made it easy to sell them again since no pressings were required.
One of the first I got was the soundtrack to The Wizard of Oz, featuring the MGM Studio Orchestra, re-released in 2009. All the original songs are there and not re-recorded renditions for polished release. No, no, every song on this album is a direct lift from the movie, sound effects, dialogue and all. And it goes in perfect chronological order from start to finish, meaning at the beginning of the album is Main Title and knowing the credits so well, you can visually place each one of them at the right point in your head when the music cues appear. But more than that, it even has songs they didn’t use, like the now-famous-for-being-cut Jitterbug sequence. “Did you just hear what I just heard / That noise don’t come from no ordinary bird.” The noise comes from the jitterbug and it’s a real pleasure to finally be able to listen to the song in full after all these years.
Next up is the original soundtrack to La Dolce Vita. My goodness, what a beautiful score and song selection. The music by Nina Rota takes cues and themes and plays with them for the whole album. And that’s another thing about soundtrack albums as they used to be and now, finally, are again: They weren’t afraid to give you seven different versions of the same theme. Another pleasure is to hear just a few seconds of something before moving on. That’s how I used to make mine, too.
Speaking of playing with motifs endlessly, I highly recommend Anton Karas Plays The Third Man, the soundtrack album to The Third Man re-released in October, 2011 after years of being out of print. It does something a little different as well. The album contains 25 selections, many of which are the theme itself, played at different tempos and recorded at different times. The first version is, of course, the one featured in the film, as are most of the other songs on the album.
Another great one is the soundtrack to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, re-released in June of 2010. It not only contains all the orchestrations, sound effects and every song but boasts plenty of introductory dialogue as well.
If you’re partial to the music of Jacques Tati movies (I am) then you can do no better than Sonorama!, released March, 2009. It doesn’t contain any sound effects or dialogue snippets (Ha! The movie’s really don’t either) but the music covers every single Tati movie and all of their themes and songs, some 39 in all. It’s a great collection.
Finally, I’m currently enjoying 50 Years of Film Music (1923 – 1973) and it goes a long way to explaining why I love these kinds of albums so much. Essentially, without the surrounding dialogue or sound effects, the song feels wrong to me. Odd, I know, but the sad truth nonetheless. Because of this I’ve never particularly liked any pre-recorded version of As Time Goes By from Casablanca. 50 Years of Film Music corrects that by giving us the full setup of Ingrid Bergman asking Dooley Wilson to play the now iconic song, which he says he can’t remember and then she hums. Now that I have a copy of the song with that intro, I can finally listen to it and love it. Of course, there is one difference and it’s one I don’t mind: The whole song plays. That’s right, Rick doesn’t walk over and break it up but that’s okay because with the intro, I like listening to the whole song.
The album is a real treasure trove for the classic film music lover. It has a whopping 45 selections with many including snippets of dialogue from the movies. There’s musical scores (Robin Hood, Streetcar Named Desire), showtunes (Bosom Buddies from Mame, Selections from Camelot) and some of the greatest of the thirties musical revues (Jeepers Creepers, Lullaby of Broadway, 42nd Street and Hooray for Hollywood, just to name a few) and all sung by the original cast from the original movie soundtrack. There’s really no substitute for this kind of thing and I’m happy that, finally, the music and movies have merged again on soundtrack albums, leaving behind the bland studio recordings that turned soundtracks into overly-polished collections of songs rather than a celebration of the music, rhythm and cadence of the whole aural cinematic experience. For me, they will always be tied together and now, at last, I don’t have to do all the mixing myself. Of course, until they release Mean Streets the way it should be, mixing songs with the sound of Johnny Boy screaming out the car window (and Marty’s “confess your sins” intro to Be My Baby), I guess I’ll have to.
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