Movie Magic

There's a school (or theater) of thought that says if a motion-picture soundtrack is any good, you shouldn't notice it in the movie; it should blend in imperceptibly with what's on the screen. A soundtrack, like a child, is better seen than heard. Sure, that's one way a score can earn points.For years, though, John Barry has showed that you can take sprawling melodic ideas and apply them to everything from heightened realism (Midnight Cowboy) to the hum of nature (Born Free), and actually improve an already good film. Confounding the view that a soundtrack should just tuckpoint the on-screen activity, Barry's scores hold up as beautiful dramas of their own. Mainly it's because he knows how to weave a recurring melodic theme through tapestries of action music, employing posh romantic motifs, keeping just the right amount of glaze on the cinematic doughnut.Perhaps the most characteristic of Barry's scores are those he wrote for the James Bond films. His luxurious orchestrations pillowed the action without muffling it, creating dreamy variations on his title themes. Barry's 007 soundtracks remain mostly in print, but until recently there's one you couldn't track down even with a license to buy. But it's back. Better than ever. The soundtrack of the Bond epic with the title that some are squeamish to say has been reissued and it is better than ever, including great liner notes (backed with a foldout poster) and snippets of dialogue from the film.Yes, Octopussy was certainly one of the more grabbing Roger Moore 007 outings, and its ravishing score just may be the pinnacle of composer Barry's work in the Bond field. Before this rerelease (it's one of Ryko's new MGM soundtrack reissues), Octopussy was a prized collector's item that reportedly sold for as much as $250 on compact disc, so valued was Barry's music and so scarce were the copies (it saw only a brief release during the first wave of CDs).Barry's trick, aside from his endless handkerchief of melody, is keeping the music a couple of notches sadder and more serious than what's occurring in the film. This gives the Bond adventures, which are basically souped-up action movies, a romantic musical sheath that heightens the pleasure. Octopussy's theme song, "All Time High," is a beautiful example. Like Carly Simon's "Nobody Does It Better" (from The Spy Who Loved Me), it's a soaring love song, guided by Rita Coolidge's warm-as-a-sweater vocal, and abetted by a big arrangement and snatches of Beatlesque guitar. "That's My Little Octopussy" spreads out "All Time High"'s melody over three lush minutes. On other cuts, the reassuring adrenaline of Bond theme music leaps out of quieter passages, keeping the musical gun steady. Barry, like Burt Bacharach, has seen a newfound appreciation/approximation of his music in current bands such as the High Llamas, Space and Portishead. And Octopussy is a great point of entry.Unlike Barry, Bacharach had a career-dip in the '70s. He had the misfortune of scoring a movie that was a disaster of Flight 800 proportions. Lost Horizon (about a plane crash and the subsequent discovery of Paradise) was such a flop it may as well have been called Lost Investments. Bacharach and his lyricist partner Hal David wrote the songs for the 1973 musical remake of the 1937 classic, and it was probably no coincidence that it was their last collaboration. The film was a sappy sing-a-rama, way out of its element in the realism-hungry early '70s. In fairness, Bacharach's songs kept the movie (which was terrible, anyway) light as a feather, just as much as the movie wasted some lovely music. Like practically anything by the man (except his Carole Bayer Sager phase), this CD reissue of the mellifluous soundtrack is worth getting, especially if you're a Bacharach completist or even an incompletist (meaning you only want the best). True, Bacharach can do no wrong, and his '70s work, though commercially unsuccessful compared to his swingin' '60s heyday, is heady stuff in a chi-chi way.It's amazing how much Bacharach got lost in himself -- his own melodic gift -- finding endless secret passages in his house of talent. "If I Could Go Back," for instance (sung by star Peter Finch!) is as introspectively regretful as you might imagine. Following that, "Where Knowledge Ends (Faith Begins)" gains a peculiar resonance, and actress Liv Ullman's rich vocals are an unexpected success. The pop jeopardy of "Question Me An Answer" (sung by the late song-and-dance man Bobby Van, the '70s host of Make Me Laugh) is Bacharach at his snappiest; and "Living Together, Growing Together," with its mantra-like refrain and unabashed familialism, is life-affirming naivete.The only thing that belies the integrity of this reissue is the Psychotronic-esque irreverence of the liner notes. I'm not convinced, for instance, that "The World Is a Circle" sounds like "the Von Trap family on medication" (maybe the Partridge Family on St. John's Wort). Nor am I convinced that Lost Horizon, a jet-crashing flop, has quite reached the level -- whether by ascent or descent -- of a "camp classic" quite yet. The liner notes should be a celebration of the innocent victim of Bacharach's music, which went down with the plane of this movie.From the literal early '70s of the Lost Horizon score, it's just a short flight of fancy to the figurative '70s of the Boogie Nights soundtrack (Capitol). What we have here, nakedly avaricious in its repackaging, is a musical orgy that combines proven classic soul (the Emotions' "Best of My Love," McFadden & Whitehead's "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now"); ELO's best song, "Livin' Thing"; the Beach Boys' best song, "God Only Knows"; and that dreadful "power-ballad" (why don't they just call it a "wimpy rocker"?), Night Ranger's "Sister Christian" (hey, this is from 1983!). The real treat is "The Big Top (theme from Boogie Nights)" a new piece of instrumental music written and performed by Michael Penn (with Patrick Warren) that, taken by itself, would sound more at home on the Lost Horizon soundtrack. And that's a compliment (to the song, not the Boogie Nights soundtrack).From porn to corn -- next up is Batman Theme and 19 Hefti Bat Songs (Razor & Tie), featuring music by the theme's author, Neal Hefti. Really, did Boogie Nights have anything as slickly phallic as the Batpole? The music that accompanied the Caped Crusaders as they zipped through Gotham City in the Batmobile was about the coolest around, and here it is on CD, hitting (BAM!) the stores just now. It's great, because you can throw away your scratched-vinyl Batman record (CRAAACK!). The point is, every one of these tracks is a swinging treat, lounge music gone fighting mad. It's a lot more fun than the soundtrack of Boogie Nights, a musical release that can't match the movie's release (WHACK!). You should definitely start with Barry and Bacharach before moving on to Batman and Boogie Nights. They're the real killer "B's."


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