My mother, sitting in our living room, burning through her usual diet of horror paperbacks and cigarettes, is shaken from her readings by music coming from our den. She realizes the same five-minute orchestral piece has drifted to her ears for the sixth time now and calls for the television to be turned down. When it isn’t, she gets up, goes down the hall, and peaks into our den’s doorway to see what’s going on.
She sees me standing in front of our modestly-sized television set with one ear planted to its small speaker and a finger hovering above the rewind button on our VCR. The cardboard case for my copy of Batman Returns sits on the contraption, and the film’s climactic scene (featuring the death of the Penguin and his burial at sea) is playing. The room is filled with melancholic music that accentuates this absurd but somehow tragic moment in the movie, and my mother sees that tears have welled up in my eyes. As the pitifully grotesque villain sinks into the watery depths of his final resting place, my finger hits the rewind button to cue up the beginning of the sequence and Danny Elfman’s accompanying score once more.
I’m not sure if this was the exact moment I fell in love with film music, but it’s pretty damn close. I continued this painfully nerdy ritual again and again with other movies in our collection whose scores refused to leave my head: Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Silence of the Lambs. Worrying that this habit would wear down our VHS cassettes too quickly, my mother found a battered tape recorder in my grandfather’s old shop and soon I was using the gizmo to record my music, and later committing it to memory after countless playbacks.
Being a movie music enthusiast has become decidedly easier in the years since. Thanks to companies like Waxwork Records, Mondo, and Rustblade, you can now get your hands on beautifully remastered vinyl editions of some of the greatest film scores of all time along with modern-day classics and cult favourites. In fact, there’s such a wealth of albums available today that it can be difficult to decide where to begin if you’re thinking of beginning your own collection.
So, here are a few of my own personal favourites. These aren’t the more obvious choices you’d see in a list of suggested cornerstones for your collection (it goes without saying that the works of composers like John Carpenter or Ennio Morricone should be peppered throughout your shelves, for instance) but they’re albums I find myself coming back to over and over again. They cover a wide range of ground, from heartbreaking to heartwarming, grandiose to goofy. Some tracks will induce fear, others will trigger bittersweet bouts of nostalgia. Not all of these selections will be every reader’s cup of tea, but I hope there’s something here for everyone. Happy listening!
Us – Michael Abels
I rewound and played back the title sequence to Jordan Peele’s sophomore effort Us three times during my first viewing, something I haven’t done since I was a kid. The visuals weren’t the reason for this, though that painstakingly slow pullback shot revealing the wall of caged rabbits is certainly mesmerizing. Instead, it was what was playing over the shot: Michael Abels’ gorgeous opening piece, “Anthem.” A tapestry of rich choral voices, subtle percussion, and restrained strings, it’s as unsettling as it is beautiful and the uncanny feeling it elicits is a good preview of the other eerie soundscapes Abels composed for the movie. Us is a film that disorients its audience, making you feel like the world is coming at you in Dutch angles, and Abels follows suit with music that very quickly breeds a deep sense of surreality. Other standout pieces include “Spider,” “Run” (which drips with pulsating menace), and the riveting “Tethered-Remix” of the Luniz classic “I’ve Got 5 On It.” Having produced some equally memorable work for Peele’s stellar debut Get Out, and with a new project in the works from the Oscar award-winning writer/director, hopefully, we’ll get another collaboration between the two artists very soon.
The Fly – Howard Shore
A few eyebrows were raised when Canadian composer Howard Shore attempted to transform his work on David Cronenberg’s classic sci-fi horror The Fly into an opera. However, all you have to do is listen to the film’s opening piece “Main Title,” a grandiose thing of tragic beauty, to hear how easily his score could make that transition. Beyond the incredible practical effects, shudder-inducing horror, and ruminations on humanity’s complicated relationship with technology, The Fly is a story about a love affair struck down by the cruelty of fate. Shore’s orchestral score sweeps you up and makes you feel party to the ups and downs of Seth Brundle and Veronica Quaife’s whirlwind romance, which makes standout pieces like “The Last Visit” and “The Finale” hit you like a punch in the gut later on in the film as their relationship comes to a grizzly end. Of all of Shore’s collaborations with David Cronenberg, this is perhaps his most emotional work, approaching melodramatic territory at times but managing to not completely step over into that realm. Keep a box of tissue handy.
In the liner notes for Waxwork Records’ release of Child’s Play (2019) soundtrack, Bear McCreary talks about sneaking into his daughter’s playroom and “borrowing” any and all toys he could find that made strange or compelling sounds. He was attempting to compose a score for the upcoming remake using only children’s toys and instruments and had managed to swipe everything from a plastic guitar and pull-string xylophones to rattles and slinkies for the endeavour (the items were promptly returned after his four-year-old discovered her father’s transgression). The sounds he found helped create a sense of sonic nostalgia that served as a base for a score that both charms and terrifies. It opens with “The Buddi Song” (the jingle each Buddi doll comes preprogrammed to sing) which is a genuine bop, full of warmth and just a tiny bit of foreboding near its end. The film’s main theme is a deranged version of that tune’s melody, sounding every bit as corrupt, menacing, and weirdly sad as the film’s reimagined version of Chucky. Much like the Child’s Play remake itself, the score works surprisingly well and is worthy enough to be judged by its own merits, away from the shadow of the original.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? – Jonathan Kirksey
I used to play my film scores every day, much to the chagrin of our neighbours who didn’t necessarily appreciate the dulcet tones heard in movies like Friday the 13th Part 6 – Jason LIVES! or The Prowler. Then I became a father and suddenly needed to start thinking about what I was putting on the record player when my son was with me. So, after crying my eyes out during a viewing of the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, I promptly ordered its soundtrack from Mondo. Featuring Mr. Rogers staples like “It’s Such a Good Feeling” and “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” performed by the legendary children’s entertainer himself, it felt like the perfect album to share with Arlo.
However, soon I found myself popping it on even when my son wasn’t around thanks to Jonathan Kirkscey’s original score. At one point in the film, Fred Rogers talks about the depth of emotions that are experienced by kids as they attempt to navigate their way through the highs and lows of childhood, and Kirkscey’s sparse but effective soundscape reflects this complexity beautifully. Pieces like “Child Psychology,” “Mr. Rogers Day,” “Love,” and “Mend the Split” bring to mind memories of what it was like when you were little and the world around you was full of wonders. It’s a wonderful listen and a woefully underrated piece of film music.
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