July 2000 Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster Len Mullenger

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Howard BLAKE
Flash Gordon (also includes music from Amityville 3D)
arranged and conducted by the composer
Flash Gordon performed by the National Philharmonic
Amityville 3D performed by the Sinfonia of London
Composer's Promo HBCD 01 [Total 72:00 - Flash Gordon 50: 52 - Amityville 3D 21:08]
How to get copies of promotional discs

Perhaps it just that its summer, but it's definitely sci-fi month. That's right, not SF or Science Fiction. Prime slices of tacky pulp. Alongside Battlefield Earth comes a reissue of Jerry Goldsmith's Supergirl (both of which I review elsewhere on FMOTW this month), and the first ever issue Howard Blake's music for the 1980 version of Flash Gordon. It must have seemed like a good idea at the time. A year before Star Wars producer Dino De Laurentis burnt a huge heap of cash on a spectacular and spectacularly misjudged remake of 1930's SF / fantasy landmark King Kong. Apparently he fancied having another go at the 30's, and why not given that Star Wars was essentially Flash Gordon with state of the art production values? The resultant film was actually rather better than many hoped (though the shelved Nic Roeg project could have been great), with glorious production design that captured well the colours and look of Alex Raymond's original comic-strip. Howard Blake wrote a striking score too. I clearly remember sitting in the cinema 20 years ago being struck by it.

Unfortunately, and bizarrely given that John Williams score for Star Wars had been so instrumental in the success of that film, to say nothing of selling a colossal quantity of LPs, the rock band Queen were invited to contribute to Flash Gordon. Originally the idea was that they would provide a title song, but things escalated, and they ended-up 'scoring' several sections of the film with, considering the cod-1930's ambience, completely inappropriate and crassly heavy-handed rock numbers. A hugely successful 'soundtrack' album was released, and a massive hit single was had. The foundation was laid for plastering action movies with rock music and editing the result like a pop video, a dire practice which came to 'maturity' with Top Gun (1986) and of course Highlander (also 1986), a fantasy adventure virtually transformed into a feature promo for Queen's then current album, A Kind of Magic. With Queen's Flash doing so well at the record store, Howard Blake's score has had to wait 20 years for a release, and even now it is as a composer's promo rather than a commercial issue.

Clearly it was thought worth sticking with what worked on orchestral SF and fantasy scores of the time, and there are some very familiar names in the credits: The National Philharmonic, Sidney Sax, Eric Tomlinson. There is a fair bit of tape hiss and the sound is not so full-bodied as the recent Star Wars and Star Trek The Motion Picture soundtrack reissues from the same period, but it is perfectly adequate and more than does its job. In-fact, apart from the strong stereo, rather than coming from 1980, it all round sounds more like a classic Bernard Herrmann soundtrack recording from the Ray Harryhausen fantasy films part of his career. The album presents 18 tracks from the film, five of which briefly interpolate some of the Queen material, though this fact can safely be ignored, such a good job did Blake do of weaving it into the tapestry of his score.

Some very short cues 'The Hero', 'Romantic Reunion', 'The City of the Hawkmen', leave space for some extended set-pieces such as 'Opening Scenes/Killer Storm/Plane Crash', with a very old Hollywood / Adventures of Superman action suspense feel, 'Tree-Stump Duel / Beast in the Swap' and 'Duel on the Sky Platform'. Some interesting pitch-effects come into play for 'Rocket Flight', the track developing into a mutant orchestral modern jazz before heading into Planet of the Apes pounding piano figures, all in 90 seconds. Only in film music! And so it goes, a thoroughly entertaining and engrossing score for the committed film music fan. I mentioned Bernard Herrmann above in respect to the recording, but I would take the comparison further. Both in the robust action writing and in the glittering oriental fantasy of cues such as 'The Princess' the legacy of Herrmann's imagination is apparent. Of course there isn't the big theme here to attract the more casual listener, Queen having grabbed all the opportunities for a rousing orchestral march, filling them with their patent brand of carnival rock. Don't however, let that put you off. The score is well worth exploring, and suggests that had things been different Howard Blake might have become famous for more than The Snowman.

Amityville 3D is necessarily a very different affair. The mysterious wordless female vocal in the main titles soon putting us right to the fact that we are deep in the heart of supernatural horror territory. It's second rate horror territory though, and Blake does a good job of bringing some real style and imaginative orchestrations to the routine proceedings. The female vocal returns throughout, echoing in the end-titles the best of such moody doom-laden sound worlds down the decades, demonstrating that Blake certainly knows how to both establish atmosphere and to Hammer the horror home. Not worth buying the album for on its own, but certainly well worth having appended to the main feature


Gary S. Dalkin


Gary S. Dalkin

Reviews from previous months

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