There are people who may say the unwavering spirit of a community is in its
folk music. One can find glimpses in the popular fads of a nation, and in
the serious composition of its social elite, but only in the old-fashioned
music for the people, from the people, does one begin to gain insight into
another world. For some, it offers insight into their own world. It is
fundamental. It takes a culture and reduces it to clear, basic musical biography,
cutting the chaff from the wheat.
Of course, sometimes there is only so much community spirit one can take,
and the music should know what community it belongs to. Mansfield's adaptation
score to the infamous box-office dud known as "Heaven's Gate" is a gorgeous
retrospective of American folk music, including nods to the transformation
of Old World music into the New via arrangements of Johann Strauss' 'By the
Beautiful Blue Danube' and several of Eastern Europe's own folk songs. In
so doing the American stylings skirt precariously near to being lost and
confused, as Mansfield switches the cultural roles like a sidewalk magician
(at one point owing more to Nino Rota than anything period, possibly prompting
an observant listener to ask, "Is he going to make me an offer I can't refuse?")
I suggest that Mansfield could have made this already above-average score
a classic had he focused on diversifying the folk techniques themselves before
experimenting with cultural styles, allowing his arrangements to suffer an
identity crisis, or two, less.
That is a moderately forgivable mis-step.
The majority of his score is full of minor innovations, powered by an obvious
emotional investment. His original compositions are not too shabby either;
from the 'Slow Water' theme to the end credits version of 'Ella's Waltz,'
there is an appropriate and satisfying traditionalism to the creative approach.
The production values are good, with crisp and informative liner notes by
Bruce Lawton and David Mansfield, fine sound, and a series of remarkable
production stills (possible spoilers for some). Well worth a look & listen.
Ian Lace raises some other points
Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate (1980) must be one of the most reviled
films of all time. The critics were merciless in their condemnation. It was
so badly received that it was withdrawn and re-edited so that its running
length was reduced from 219 minutes to 140 minutes. Since 1980 there has
been something of a re-evaluation and the film's strengths are becoming
increasingly recognised. Personally, I have mixed feelings about the film.
I appreciated the wonderful photography and some of the set pieces like the
long dance sequence, but I was not impressed with its plot incoherence (why
bother, for instance, to include the relatively meaningless and inflated
Harvard [shot in England] Prologue and the Yacht Epilogue) and the shameful
waste of acting talent (John Hurt particularly). I will remind readers of
some of the critics' comment:
A vital turning point in Hollywood policy, hopefully
marking the last time a whiz kid with one success behind him is given a blank
cheque to indulge in self-abuse." - Halliwell's Film Guide.
"Photographed in majestic locations with incredible period detail
to little effect since the narrative, character, motivations and sound track
are so hopelessly muddled" - Matlin
"One of the ugliest films I have ever seen
a study in wretched
formless at 4 hours - insipid at 140 minutes...the most scandalous
cinematic waste I have ever seen." - Ebert.
But, to the music. From Bruce Lawton's erudite booklet notes we learn that
John Williams was first approached and had originally agreed to score the
film. However, when he was offered the Boston Pops that year he had to cut
down on his scoring commitments. I will therefore begin by playing devil's
advocate. I suggest that although Williams was saved the ignominy of being
associated with this perceived turkey, his music might have just saved the
film because it could well have illuminated plot and character and added
just that bit more coherence. The folksy, intimate music of David Mansfield,
pleasant as it is, certainly did not.
Lawton tells how Mansfield's score developed on the hoof so to speak much
like, one suspects, the rest of the production. Mansfield remembered that
he did some instrumental arrangements of some of the Eastern European folk
songs that were sung, and played by the Heaven's Gate band in various scenes
in the film. Cimino was impressed and asked for more and felt that this small
intimate score was working more effectively than the orchestral temp music
they were working with. Mansfield, therefore, continued to assemble music,
primarily simple folk tunes; arranging this material, sometimes changing
time signatures and modes from major to minor etc. The result is a delectable
collection of lovely, intimate, atmospheric and romantic melodies. The titles
say it all - 'Slow Water'; 'Snowfall', 'Sweet Breeze'; 'Moonlight'; 'Morning
Star' etc. The 'Heaven's Gate Waltz' is the best remembered; the sort of
tune that runs around in the head for days. All are scored for a small ensemble
including a classical guitar, violins, mandolins and mandocello (a guitar
turned to a cello range). Listening to the music, on this album, one would
never guess that the film contains scenes of the most harrowing violence.
The only cue that has any hint of real darkness is one of the twelve so-called
bonus tracks, 'Champion's Death.'
The biggest drawback about this album is our age-old complaint - lack of
variety. If it were not for the delicious Heaven's Gate Waltz (which is reprised
and slightly modified a number of times) I would have awarded this CD just
three stars; so -