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For fans of that period during the 1970s when film scores and jazz often walked hand in hand, this double bill will no doubt bring a big smile to their faces, while others who have never felt much attachment to that particular musical form will find it all a good deal less attractive. But whatever your own personal taste, this is certainly a progressive, commendable work deserving of consideration from an innovative, artistic standpoint, even while admittedly at times it makes for a difficult listening experience.
The French Connection (1971) opens with a ‘Main Title’ that is patently jazzy, strident and rather brief and is followed by the score’s other main motif on ‘Charnier’, a low-key, equally jazzy, romanticised theme that signifies the enigmatic villain of the piece. After this there are several tracks which recall one theme or the other (‘The Old Fort’, a dissonant variation on the ‘Charnier’ motif and a restatement of the main theme on ‘The Last Roundup’ for instance). However, the majority of the score is dominated by helter-skelter brass led jazz assaults like ‘Copstail’, a trumpet led piece that becomes at turns almost experimental and then positively jaunty, the schizophrenic waltz of ‘Bugging Sal and Angie’ and the maddening trumpets of ‘The Shot’. And that’s just a sample. This is very much a work that defies convention with such cues as ‘Staking Out Sal’, with its echoing, disjointed, almost avant-garde string quartet playing and the discordant trumpet and strings with percussive backing of ‘Subway’ hammering home that point in no uncertain terms.
The complete score from French Connection II (1975) follows and is very similar in stylistic terms, if a little darker in overall tone, particularly when reflecting the story elements concerning drug abuse. The ‘Main Title/Waterfront’ is a very 70s piece, almost like a TV cop show theme, but even this conventionally styled cue soon degenerates into synthesised atmospherics before too long. Like its predecessor, a great deal of the music is resolutely unmelodious, with tracks like ‘Boat Ride’, with its odd, twisted variation on the main theme and the low key distorted electric guitar and synthesizer of ‘Volleyball’ two early indicators of what to expect. All of the tracks devoted to the section of the story where hero ‘Popeye’ Doyle is imprisoned and force fed heroin are strikingly accompanied by synthesized droning and distortion, punctuated by some bold brass and percussive interludes (Heroin) or ominous discordant strings ( ‘O.D.’). However, the best selections would have to be latter cues such as the low forbidding foghorn sound of ‘Boat Bottom/Drydock’, the rhythmic, fast moving reprise of the main theme on ‘Big Chase’, with plenty of punchy brass and ‘Stalking/Here Come the Cops’, a long, creepy, repetitive piece that builds gradually with brass and keyboard and subtle percussion.
This is yet another worthwhile release from the esteemed Film Score Monthly gang and artistically both scores are frequently striking. Yet there still remains the problem that this is another example of pure film music (plenty of irony here) rather than a score that simply makes for a pleasing listening experience. Add the fact that much of the music from The French Connection was unused in the final cut of the film and really this becomes more a record of wasted innovation and that was certainly the lingering feeling I came away with.
For those who know what to expect this will be a delight, while others who stumble upon it hoping for conventional melodic film scoring will unfortunately be sorely disappointed. But if innovative jazz and dissonance is your thing, this is not to be missed.