The mystery of Stanley Kubrick’s career is that one man balanced critical appeal with commercial success for nearly forty years, and did it all with thirteen features spaced up to ten years apart. Certainly no other serious film-maker secured a lifetime deal with Warner Brothers for the financing of his final five films (though Warner did briefly court Jane Campion following the success of The Piano), and no other director rivalled Kubrick in reputation for perfectionism. As the liner notes of this reissue of the 1999 Silva Screen Records compilation Dr. Strangelove: Music from the Films of Stanley Kubrick indicate, Kubrick’s meticulous eyes and ears left little of the film-making process to chance. From doing his own historical research to personally guiding the marketing and distribution strategies of his films, Stanley Kubrick did everything he was personally capable of to ensure the final film embodied his artistic vision.
Now Stanley Kubrick was incapable of playing music, but was nonetheless cogniscent of the power of music in film. Much like Ingmar Bergman (who collaborated with fellow Swede Erik Nordgren), his early films – up to and including Lolita – were scored with original music based on classical music structures. The nuclear holocaust black comedy Dr Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worry and Love the Bomb began his use of recognisable pre-recorded music in his film-making with ‘Johnny comes marching home’ and the irony-laden song ‘We’ll Meet Again’. 2001: A Space Odyssey cemented his tendency to use pre-recorded music to comment on the action, Kubrick experimenting with and ultimately discarding two original scores (one by Alex North and a lesser known effort by Frank Cordell) in favour of his temp track selected from Strauss, Ligeti and Khatchaturian.
In a manner similar to Michelangelo Antonioni, the later Ingmar Bergman and Michael Mann, Kubrick thereafter used music that spoke to the action of his blackly witty films. Ironic comment, rather than emotional catharsis, was his intention. The kind of music this ultimately involved using, and the fact that his films rarely contained original score in a romantic orchestral idiom, meant that film score afficiandos have always been more critical of Kubrick’s musical choices than the broader critical establishment. This criticism can be easily countered by saying the music was intended to work in collaboration with the film, not in isolation, but there’s no arguing that Kubrick’s eclecticism in musical choice has on occasion made for albums that feel too musically disparate to be anyone’s favourites.
And possibly this is the problem of the Kubrick compilation reissued here. Who will buy this CD but a Kubrick fan that probably already has the original soundtrack albums for all of major films? There’s no denying the power of some of the selections here, and the album does start out incredibly well. Kubrick made Strauss’ ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ his own in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the mysteriously triumphant World Riddle theme adding immeasurably to the film’s unspoken argument about breakthroughs in the evolution of humanity. Two selections from the greatest original score written for a Kubrick film follow – Alex North’s Spartacus (ironically the least Kubrickian film). Pagan brutality parades in the superb ‘Main Title’, and more traditionalHollywoodsentiment follows in the gorgeous ‘Love Theme’. The sombre procession of Handel’s ‘Sarabande’ commented on the rituals of eighteenth century polite European society, and it fits well, as does the lilting traditional ‘Women of Ireland’ from the same film. The latter piece also underscored the moving coda of Jan Harlan’s documentary Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures, and is a good reminder that Kubrick was a trend-setter in world cinema – for those who never heard a gael before James Horner’s Braveheart or John Williams’ Far and Away, this was one of the first films to use authentic Celtic instrumentation, and one of the few to use it effectively.
Then hell breaks loose. I don’t know what the right place for the heavily processed electronic mutilation of Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ was on this album, but surely there was a better place than the spot following ‘Women of Ireland’. A suite from Abigail Mead’s (a pseudonym for Vivian Kubrick – Kubrick’s estate was called Abbot’s Meade) score to Kubrick Vietnam War satire Full Metal Jacket follows, and while you’d think anything would sound better than the Beethoven redux, the performance and content is such that this doesn’t sit well either. And while there’s a strong fan base for Wendy Carlos’ Dies Irae-inspired electronic score for The Shining, the ‘Main Theme’ along with the selections from Full Metal Jacket and A Clockwork Orange is sufficiently different from what came before to make one want to turn the CD off.
Things get back on track with the Waltz from Shostakovich’s Jazz Suite No.2, the buoyant saxophone line of the waltz theme has surely never been more welcome. The lengthy suite from Gerald Fried’s scores to the early Kubrick films is of varying interest – the thrilling staccato of ‘Main Title / The Robbery’ from The Killing and the passacalia of Killer’s Kiss ‘Murder among the Mannikins’ are highlights. The selections from the war films Fear and Desire and Paths of Glory pass with less notice (the moving concluding song from the latter might have been a better inclusion). The sly use of a gladiatorial march in the boxing short Day of the Fight calls the listener to attention again, though in a less distinctive harmonic language than Alex North’s earlier march from Spartacus. Bob Harris ‘Love Theme’ from Lolita (1962) is a great deal less sincere than Morricone’s effort for the Adrian Lyne adaptation of the Nabokov novel, but in feel it recalls the popular orchestral instrumentals of the period. The cheeky ‘Johnny Comes Marching Home’ from Dr Strangelove passes quickly, while a ten minute suite of the Blue Danube waltz from 2001: A Space Odyssey lingers too long as an album closer.
Without being unkind, no review of a CD put out by the City of Prague Philharmonic should pass without reference to their performance. This CD is mostly well performed under the baton of Paul Bateman. Strauss’ ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ feels thinner than it should – and an unfortunate brass flub spoiling the final triumphant statement of the World Riddle theme. (That something as simple as this could be mishandled makes me wonder what the City of Prague take on polyphonic pieces by Ligeti would sound like.) ‘Women of Ireland’ lacks the spark of the original performance of The Chieftains in the fiddle and penny whistle solos, but the lush string section more than makes up for it. The metallic groans and cold chill of Abigail Mead’s score for Full Metal Jacket are altogether gone, the reconstruction coming across as lukewarm. Apart from these complaints, the orchestra acquits itself well.
The problem of this CD is not so much content or performance but the jarring shift in styles throughout. Each of the selections is at the very least strong in the context of the film, but did they all belong on the same CD? The Blue Danube suite is sadly as overlong as it was on the 1999 issue, especially in contrast to the shorter tracks that dominate the CD. Good as it is to have selections from all of the Gerald Fried scores, that section of the album drags for want of the irony evident in most of Kubrick’s music selections. And while it would not have been reasonable to exclude tracks from some of Kubrick’s most popular films – The Shining, Full Metal Jacket and A Clockwork Orange – the album suffers from their presence. It is easy to imagine that a better listening experience might have been made by including, in their place, some harder-to-perform material such as Jocelyn Pook’s ‘Naval Officer’ (Eyes Wide Shut), Schubert’s Trio in E Flat Minor (Barry Lyndon), Liszt’s Grey Clouds’ (Eyes Wide Shut) and Ligeti’s Requiem or Atmospheres (both from 2001: A Space Odyssey). Or why not include material from Alex North and Frank Cordell’s rejected scores from 2001? Knowing Silva’s habit of repackaging old albums every couple of years, perhaps in 2008, The Shining: Music from the Films of Stanley Kubrick will incorporate some of those left out this time around.
Whatever the selection, the CD is certainly an improvement over its 1999 version. While it’s sad to lose ‘We’ll Meet Again’ from Dr Strangelove, the songs from The Shining and Full Metal Jacket are not missed, and the ‘Love Theme’ by Alex North and Shostakovich’s ‘Waltz’ are welcome inclusions, shifting the tone of the album slightly more to the romantic orchestral idiom. Those inclusions might push the average soundtrack fan who doesn’t own the earlier compilation to buy this, but note the strong reservations above. Those who do own the 1999 version should note that this reissue is better, but insufficiently so to pay full price again. Liner notes by David Wishart are informative about the music and the films they appear in.
1999 version: 2