December 2006 Film Music Editorial

Film Music Editor: Michael McLennan
Managing Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster: Len Mullenger

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Basil Poledouris (1945-2006)

“Born in 1945 in Kansas City, Poledouris studied music with David Raksin at the University of Southern California. While a student he met aspiring director John Milius, and their friendship soon developed into a professional relationship, with Poledouris providing music for Milius’ acclaimed Big Wednesday in 1978. In 1982, Poledouris and Milius collaborated on the Oliver Stone-scripted Conan the Barbarian (starring newcomer Arnold Schwarzenegger), for which the composer wrote an appropriately larger-than-life score: the arresting Main Title theme features24 French horns and a battery of percussion. That score is still often hailed as his finest (q.v. the Gramophone Film Music Good CD Guides).

“Although Poledouris acknowledged a stylistic debt to Miklos Rozsa, it was his Greek heritage, specifically that of the Greek Orthodox tradition, that made his music so distinctive. His melodies as well as his harmonic textures – often featuring minor-key arpeggiated chord progressions – were infused with an Eastern-European sensibility, as was his choral writing which featured prominently, for example, in The Hunt for Red October (1990).

“As a result, Poledouris always wrote music with a unique sound of his own, be it for the TV series Lonesome Dove (for which he won an Emmy in 1989) or bold, brash works like the science-fiction satires of RoboCop (1987) and Starship Troopers (1997), both directed by Paul Verhoeven: Poledouris inspired loyalty in his directorial collaborators. At a time when much film music seems unadventurous and lacking personality, Poledouris’ distinctive voice will be missed.”

- Mark Walker

“In terms of lyricism, majesty and sheer cinematic power, few scores can match Basil Poledouris' Conan the Barbarian. It is quite simply one of finest film scores ever written. For myself, during the 1980s in particular, a new score from Poledouris was always greeted with anticipation and excitement and in fact, I bought pretty much everything by him that came out on vinyl during that time, from the stirring, bombastic Red Dawn to what I consider to be the best score for a terrible film that I've ever heard in Flesh and Blood! Poledouris was always one to watch, a composer who consistently produced music of real quality. Over the last few years, like so many others, I have been awaiting a comeback from this composer whom I have so long held in high esteem. Now that he is gone that will never be. But looking back on his varied and admirable career I realise now that he had already done more than enough. His place in the ranks of the great composers is secure. And long will his music live on in our hearts and minds.”

- Mark Hockley

“Basil Poledouris stood out in modern film music as someone who had an almost Golden Age sensibility – his music was very much his own, but the way he used it had far more in common with Miklós Rózsa or Alfred Newman than it did with Hans Zimmer or James Newton Howard. He saw films as a vast canvas, he revelled in the opportunities they gave him to stretch himself to the limit, to write music as grand, expressive and colourful as the Golden Age masters had done, decades before. He was just as adept at affecting the listener and viewer with deeply personal, intimate music on projects such as the great Lonesome Dove, a series full of so much spirit of the Old West, and so much spirit of Basil Poledouris. Even as the world of film music was devolving around him, he stuck steadfastly to his principles, and while his refusal to cheapen himself by adopting working methods which seemed as asinine to him as they were unfamiliar may have meant we just didn’t get the volume of Poledouris music we might all have wanted, it does mean that the body of work he left behind is so powerfully distinctive, he will forever be remembered as one of film music’s finest.”

- James Southall

“It's strange when legends like Basil Poledouris pass away...  When you've been hearing their works for most of your life, it seems inevitable that they continue to live in every note and nuance of their music.  I have never had a favorite score by the maestro, but I'll never forget the first time I heard White Fang.  Back then, it never occurred to me to collect music scores, so I was happy simply hitting "rewind" on the VHS (again and again) to indulge in the ebb and flow of melodic thrills.  That score--like many others--was enormously poignant, intoxicating, and forever conveyed emotions that went beyond the boundaries of the film; Poledouris's music just had that priceless, phenomenal quality. He’ll be missed, yes, but his spirit lives in every cue and album that touches the lives of music lovers everywhere.”

- Tina Huang

“The film world has lost has lost one of its finest citizens. I can’t help but tear up even as I write that Basil Poledouris died of cancer on Wednesday November 8th of this year. (Eight hours ago at time of writing.) One of the most extraordinary things about Poledouris’s music for film, something that has been confirmed by the collective outpouring of grief in the soundtrack community in the last twenty-four hours, is that his music had few (if any) detractors among those sensitive to use of music in film. And it’s not hard to see why. His music was infectious beyond belief, often refusing to take the backseat submission frequently expected of the modern film composer. In the films of master of excess Paul Verhoeven (Flesh and Blood, Starship Troopers, Robocop) and master of male romance John Milius (Big Wednesday, Conan the Barbarian, Farewell to the King), Poledouris’s sincere romantic voice found perfect partners.

“Of course the other side of the coin was that he was as dextrous as any film composer. He could find the mythical heart of a Kevin Costner baseball film (For Love of the Game) as surely as he locked into Verhoeven’s curious brand of bile with his propagandistic score for Starship Troopers. Where the director’s communicative power was nil, his dramatic instinct made all the difference between obligatory functional scoring and superbly functioning scoring - as in his latter-day masterpiece Les Miserables. (See Gabriel Yared’s account of his experience with Bille August on the film.) He could lead the drama just as easily with a bad orchestra (the absurdly infectious Conan the Barbarian), choir and synthetic orchestration (the wonderful Hunt for Red October score), or a self-performed solo piano (It’s My Party). And he could write for woodwinds! (A rare talent in modern film scoring indeed.)

And yet if I could have any Poledouris score - with so many to choose from - today I would rather have the westerns than any other. Leaning more to the folk song than the fanfare, his contributions to Lonesome Dove and Quigley Down Under were invaluable. In Lonesome Dove, the drama meets the music at its point of excellence, and remains for me the essential Poledouris effort. 'Jake's Fate' speaks of the lost potential of the careless show-pony Jake. 'Captain Call's Journey' itself is extremely skillful in its spotting of phrases of the rich main theme to the evolving action on-screen, the concluding thirty seconds or so one of the most deserved melodic outbursts in film music. 'Farewell Ladies' never fails to give me goosebumps, something I could say of so many of the late composer's themes. (And thus I'm unsurprised to learn from Richard Kraft's memorial to Basil that his criterion for a successful theme was whether it gave his wife goosebumps.)

“This score and the more rambunctious Quigley give us a taste of what might have been had the composer not turned down scoring Dances with Wolves, or the director’s later (superior) Open Range. (Costner’s films of course became John Barry’s revival and Michael Kamen’s touching swansong respectively.) And of course we must wonder what treasures we might have heard had he provided the replacement score to Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy as was rumored at the time Gabriel Yared’s fine score was rejected. It may seem silly to hypothesize even now, but it is only human to want more of the best. There was always the chance he would be back to score again, however unlikely. Now we must be content with what we have of Poledouris, and I’m ever so grateful for it."

- Michael McLennan

Jon Burlingame’s obituary is featured in the New section on the Film Music Society’s website. I equally commend the online memories of Robert Townson and Richard Kraft. Those who wish to leave condolences for the composer’s family can do so at the forum on the composer’s website. (Recollections from composers John Ottman, Damon Intraba… and Christopher Lennertz are among the tributes.)

Over the years, some of Poledouris’s best work has been reviewed here at Film Music on the Web, including the following:

  • Les Miserables
  • Amerika
  • Big Wednesday
  • Cherry 2000
  • Amanda
  • Lonesome Dove
  • Conan the Barbarian (not a FMOTW review, but one I wrote some time ago for Dan Goldwasser’s site)

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