Monday, March 31, 2014

Rogues' Gallery - Sharon Apple

There is no reason to think Sharon's logo is a twisted
version of the Macross Plus logo, no reason at all.
In my review of Macross Plus I spent a lot of time talking about Sharon Apple and her devious ways, but only included a single teaser picture of the virtual idol. That's because Sharon beguiled me with her melodious voice and stunning visage(s). I ended up with way too many screen captures of her. So I focused on presenting the rest of the cast and the mecha from the series, and decided to give Sharon her own blog post.

And since she becomes the primary antagonist of the series, she's a perfect fit for the rogues' gallery concept. What is interesting about Macross Plus is that Isamu is our main character, but his rival Guld, isn't a bad guy. In fact he seems a lot more sensible and calm than Isamu. There's a bit of irony in that, and any fan of the original Macross (or Robotech) series will pick up on it. Guld is actually half Zentradi. The Zentradi are an alien race of warriors who are genetically bred to be soldiers. So it is in Guld's DNA to fight and to win. There is a brief mention in the series that Guld is taking some kind of drug to help temper his killer instinct. Of course he ends up snapping a few times, and Isamu is on the receiving end. But still, Guld isn't a bad guy, he's made some bad choices in life but deep down he still cares about Myung and Isamu.

Guld focusing hard on not killing Isamu.
Since those three were childhood friends, the series needed someone else to raise the stakes of villainy. Enter Sharon Apple. But in all honesty, I feel a bit bad for her too. She's essentially a super powerful child who has no guidance and doesn't realize that she is doing anything wrong. She just wants to please everyone. And the only way to do that is to give them what they want. Since they all love watching her, they get to watch her - forever. She figures out that Isamu loves living on the edge of danger. This must be because he wants to experience death, right? So why not give him that ultimate experience. See it all makes logical sense in the end... Right guys?

Um, Ok, so maybe I've been listening to too much Sharon Apple music, and I'm sympathizing with the devil. But it's hard to argue with a virtual siren. So without further ado, enjoy some images of the real star of Macross Plus. And why don't you listen to her song Idol Talk while you do so. I'm sure it won't have any affect on your mind.

So if Sharon is a virtual idol, then what does her hardware look like. Well it's pretty simple actually. You've got your basic HAL inspired black box with a red eye. Red is a motif for Sharon. Might have something to do with apples, but she will neither confirm nor deny that.

Sharon keeps a digital eye on all her fans.

Later in the series, Sharon takes control of the "Ghost Fighter", a lethal mecha that gives Guld and Isamu a real run for the money. And what color is it?

Oh she's sleek and wicked looking in her "Ghost Fighter"
Yeah, yeah, yeah, but where's the virtual idol! That's what we all came to see! Ok, well you get three different versions of Sharon in her virtual idol form. First there is the pixie-esque playful version.

Just because she's cute doesn't mean she won't
try to kill you.
Then there's the one with the long red hair and hypnotic gaze. She seems to be the seducer of the group, usually appearing when she wants to entice a watcher to do her will.

Whoops, Isamu made eye contact.

Finally there is the purple garbed goddess. She's the one that speaks the most often and wants to care for everyone. But she's just as dangerous as the others.

Sharon tells Myung that she will take care of
everything. It is not a comforting thought.

In the final episode Sharon and Myung have a face off. Creator and creation try to reason with each other. The thing is Sharon is everything that Myung tried to bury. At first Myung doesn't understand that.

Myung tries to have a chat with her "daughters", but
it's difficult when she's tied up.
Once Myung figures out Sharon's logic, it dawns on her how dangerous the virtual idol is. For Sharon, there is no need to "reason" with her creator. Because the reason is so very clear. The roles reverse and Sharon starts treating Myung as the child, even going so far as to appear larger than Myung in those final scenes.

I'm your mother now. Be a good little girl bring
Isamu to me.
One of the perks of being virtual is you can be in multiple places at once. During the finale concert at Macross, Sharon appears as a towering goddess over the city, while her music and image appears on every screen and holographic projector in the city.

A giant crazy goddess was seen over Macross last
But it's hard to stay mad at Sharon. She looks so peaceful when she's turning everyone into her devoted slave/fans. They'll just sit there and stare at her for an eternity (or until they die of thirst, whichever comes first).

So calm. So serene. So crazy. Notice her earrings
are her symbol. 
Eventually Isamu and Guld manage to defeat some of Sharon's traps and weapons. So she starts playing dirty. Isamu enlisted one of her biggest fans (and an expert hacker) to put a stop to the virtual idol. Well, because the poor dope is using a computer to hack into Sharon's mainframe (is that dirty?), she decides to visit him. 

Sharon comes face to face with her biggest fan, and
twists his mind like a candy cane.
Then she goes for Isamu, swimming through his tracking screen and into his lap, singing her siren song the whole time.

Dealing with virtual idols is never covered in the
airline safety films.
Luckily Myung breaks the spell by singing Voices in the intercom and shattering Sharon's hypnotic music. Isamu snaps out of it and destroys Sharon once and for all. It's a neat call back to the original Macross saga, where a pop star's song brings two warring races together.

Giant goddess Sharon is sad there won't be
an encore performance.
And there you have it, the ULTIMATE Sharon Apple experience on this blog. Short of going to one of her concerts it doesn't get much better than this. So for fans of the muse hell bent on pleasing her fans to death, I hope you enjoyed this gallery. Now, if you excuse me, I'm going to listen to Information High again and wait for Sharon to come out of my computer and sing me to death... sleep, I meant sleep. 

Disclaimer: While Sharon Apple was destroyed at the end of the series, fans suspect that some of her programming survived and is even now plotting a return to the virtual world. Except she changed her name to Hatsune Miku to keep people from freaking out.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Macross Plus (1994)

I blogged about how I’m part of the Robotech generation of anime fans. It was the series that really brought anime to my attention as a kid. And even though I became a full-fledged fan of Japanese animation about ten years after viewing the series, it made an impression on me. One of the anime series of the 1990s that helped pull me into fandom (after Rally and the Gunsmith Cats worked their magic) was a sequel to the Robotech saga. Of course Robotech was the American name for the series, in Japan it was known as Super Dimension Fortress: Macross.

Isamu Dyson (Lee Stone) is a young cocky mecha pilot. He has all the skills to make him great, but a reckless attitude that endangers others when he shows off. Because he’s a bit of an ass, his superiors decide to transfer him to New Edwards on the planet Eden, to be a test pilot for the experimental mecha they are working on. Isamu knows his ego is writing checks his body can’t cash, but he doesn’t care, and heads off for his new assignment with glee.

Little does he know that his old rival Guld Goa Bowman (Richard George) is also a test pilot at New Edwards. The two renew their dislike for each other, and Colonel Millard (Beau Billingslea) uses it to his advantage, forcing the two to compete with each other to determine which experimental fighter will be the best fit for the military.

To further complicate matters, Isamu and Guld both had a childhood crush on the same girl, Myung Fang Lone (Anne Sherman). She’s also returned to Eden as the manager of the hottest idol singer in the galaxy. The singer is named Sharon Apple (Melora Harte), but she is no ordinary idol. She’s actually a computer system that is linked to Myung. Her emotional programming gets a boost from her human counterpart, and the computer creates the perfect image and songs for the spectators – creating the ultimate in entertainment.

These four personalities are going to collide in a battle of egos, history and technology. And don’t count Sharon out, just because she doesn’t have a body, doesn’t mean she won’t play for keeps, and leave nothing but pieces in her wake.

Good Points:
  • Some amazing animation for its time
  • Wonderful score and songs by Yoko Kanno
  • Develops an interesting corner of the Macross universe
Bad Points:
  • Those looking for pure action will be annoyed by the human drama that takes center stage
  • Someone watched Top Gun a few times before writing the script
  • Does not follow any of the characters or events from the television series
Judged on its own merits, Macross Plus is an entertaining series. The impressive animation showcases some amazing battle sequences and the virtual realities of Sharon Apple. Kanno’s songs are a wonderful mix of mysterious, beautiful, and poppy.  It’s solid entertainment, and was certainly a showcase series of its time.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 4
Sound: 4
Acting: 3
Script: 3
Music: 4
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 4
Total:  4

In Depth Review
The Macross Plus logo opens each episode. In the
mid 90s this CG image was the cat's pajamas!
This was one of those Original Animated Video (OAV) series that I remember taking forever to get a full release. For some reason the first two episodes were widely available on VHS, but episode three was hard to get a hold of, and the final episode took forever to get released in North America, nearly a year after the third episode of memory serves. But anime fans were patient and while we were waiting we could spin through the epic saga of Record of Lodoss War or Tenchi Muyo again. It’s funny to think back on those crazy VHS only days and remember how rare some of this stuff was, and how excited we were about these shows. Now that anime has saturated the world of entertainment, I wondered how well a glorified version of Top Gun was going to hold up with my memories.

To tell you the truth Macross Plus was still very entertaining. I didn’t remember it being so focused on the love triangle. I didn’t remember the animation being so good (especially during the flying and battle sequences). And now that I’ve seen the entirety of the original Macross series (sure it was in Robotech form, but it counts), a lot of neat parallels became more obvious.

Guld's fighter prepares for it's next test run at
New Edwards.
As a whole Macross Plus has some impressive animation. They’ve taken the overall designs of the fighter planes, outfits and general tech of the original Macross series and pushed it forward a bit. You still recognize this as the same universe, but it everything looks a bit cleaner and a bit shinier. The two specialized fighters transform (of course), and the animators have a field day putting the two fighters into various situations where they can switch modes and continue battling. Each episode contains at least one fighter test sequence, but the finale episode has the biggest and most elaborate fight scene in the series. As far as 90s transforming mecha action, it is hard to top that battle scene.

I have seen some folks take issue with the character design. In an act of rebellion, the characters defy the tiny nose convention of most anime, and go for some serious nasal action. I actually liked this look; it certainly makes the series stand apart from its peers in the visual department. The same look would be used in one of the best series of the decade, Vision of Escaflowne, which boasted many of the same creative team. To me it’s a nice glimpse of a time when unique character design was more prevalent in anime.

Sharon Apple's first concert on planet Eden is
a smashing success.
But the most interesting character, and interesting use of animation in Macross Plus is Sharon Apple. Her computer design is obviously inspired by HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey. But her virtual self has three distinct looks and personalities. There are two concerts with Sharon and the animators go all out letting the virtual idol assume all three variations of her personality, create holographic backgrounds and a dazzling array of visual flourishes. These concerts scenes are some of the best utilization of CG and integrating it into the hand drawn visuals in the series. Since the whole thing is a virtual concert the incongruous styles don’t detract much. The last episode, where Sharon unleashes her final scheme, gives her plenty of time to shine. My favorite moment is when she appears as a towering goddess looming over Macross welcoming her slaves… I mean fans, to embrace her. There are some wonderful and iconic visuals in this final episode, and Sharon’s fans are sure to pick that one as their favorite.

Isamu is riding the highway to the danger zone when
he trash talks to Guld.
As I mentioned the series does use a bit of computer animation. Since this was the mid-90s some of it looks a bit primitive now. When it is used for holographic displays or during the virtual concerts it’s fine. But there are a few moments where it is used for the fighters, and they just don’t look too good over hand drawn backgrounds or characters. This was an issue with anime of the period, before computers really took over the coloring and consistency of the animation. Some series worked it in better than others, and for me Macross Plus wasn’t as jarring as something like Blue Submarine No. 6.

And speaking of the concerts and music, well you knew I had to mention it at some point. Yoko Kanno’s work on Macross Plus is what really brought her to the attention of many anime fans as well as being her real breakout piece. She composed the score; an eclectic mix of styles ranging from classical inspirations like Stravinsky and Prokofiev, to film composer styles similar to Ennio Morricone, John Williams and even Bill Conti’s work on The Right Stuff. The score is primarily orchestral and performed with energy by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

Myung is Sharon Apple's "manager" in more ways
than one.
Of course the pop songs performed by Sharon Apple are the highlight, with Kanno using several different artists to perform for the virtual idol and provide a wide spread of styles and flavors. The main theme for the series has to be the song Voices. This was a song the character Myung sung in her youth, but has turned her back on. It appears several times as other characters mention it. There’s a great orchestral version of the song, an a cappella version, and a full ballad version of the song. It is one of Kanno’s best songs and well worth checking out.

Since this was an early anime release, it was made when anime companies were experimenting with translating the J-pop into English. The English dub for Macross Plus features an English version of Voices, performed by Michelle Flynn. She does a fine job and her vocal style is very similar to Akino Arai. The rest of the English dub is pretty hit and miss. It’s kind of odd, because many of these performers would go on to do some great work for future projects like Cowboy Bebop and Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. But here, there are some very stilted deliveries, flat performances and some odd acting choices. There are a few comical (not intentional) moments. The script isn’t terribly complicated, so you can go with Japanese with subtitles for this one. Of the cast, I think Lee Stone (which was a pseudonym for actor Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad fame) as Isamu does the best job channeling his inner Tom Cruise.

One of the images that always comes to mind
when I think of this series.
So the script to Macross Plus is the major weak point. It is Top Gun with a virtual idol mixed in with transforming fighter planes. But while the Tom Cruise flick focused on how awesome the jets were and how awesome Tom Cruise was, Macross Plus goes for a soapy route. The love triangle is played to the hilt, with Guld, Isamu and Myung all fighting their inner demons, their mixed up past and their desires. It actually gives the three characters a bit more dimension that Maverick and Iceman ever really got. But it also lays it on a bit thick at times. Both Guld and Isamu are some of the most unprofessional pilots I’ve ever seen, even for test pilots. Myung fares a bit better, with her desires being channeled into Sharon Apple, who takes those desires and actualizes them. 

Sharon Apple takes the whole thing to a new level, she’s a newborn whose entire psyche is based on a damaged woman’s. She has nearly godlike powers and doesn’t feel she needs to hold back when trying to achieve her ultimate goal – to provide Isamu with the ultimate experience. In other words, try her darnedest to kill him in front of Myung. You know how those virtual idols are. 

A rescue attempt is about go horribly wrong.
There is an interesting theme about technology running through the whole series. Both of the new mecha fighters are cutting edge weapons. The one Isamu is piloting is faster and more maneuverable than the current design. But it still relies on a pilot to get the job done. The other fighter that Guld is flying is tied directly to his brain. He doesn't actually have controls in front of him, but uses his mind as the interface. It can react as as quickly as Guld can think. But as the series continues we learn of another fighter the Macross government is working on, one with an advanced AI that doesn't require a pilot at all. This "Ghost Fighter" becomes a nemesis for the Guld and Isamu. And it mirrors Sharon Apple, an advanced AI who wants to take over Myung's duties to "her men". Of course Sharon takes control of the Ghost Fighter and that turns into the grand battle in the final episode. While the story isn’t anything terribly new, there is enough of it to flesh out four episodes each running about 40 minutes or so, and to give us some wonderful animated sequences.

This cityscape is familiar to all fans of the Macross
(and Robotech) series.
Directors Shoji Kawamori and Shinichiro Watanabe do a great job keeping the story trucking along for that entire series. There is a nice balance of action, drama and eye candy in each episode. The only episode that bogs down a little bit is the third one. It is mostly set up for the final episode. This episode is the most soapy of the episodes in Macross Plus, and it is light on action. But the fourth episode more than makes up for it pushing the action to 11 and having Sharon Apple take center stage. Watanabe would go on to work on Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo ( both featuring music by Yoko Kanno). Kawamori would continue work in the Macross universe as well as create the fantasy saga Vision of Escaflowne and Aquarion (both also featuring music by Yoko Kanno). As you can see Macross Plus served as a springboard to several careers. In that way it a milestone for Japanese animation. But it is also a entertaining series worth checking out. Just make sure that Sharon Apple doesn’t come out of your screen and start singing… you’ll be in real trouble .

But wait! Where is Sharon Apple in this review? I suspect she needed a rogues' gallery of her own.

"I'll be waiting to give you the Ultimate experience." 

Monday, March 24, 2014

Fugitive Alien (1987) – MST3K Review

The fearsome Wolf Raiders are attacking earth and making a real mess of things. The most fearsome is Ken (Tatsuya Azuma), who can toss humans around like they are sock monkeys and manages to scowl pretty good even with this goofy clown wig/helmet on. But it all goes wrong when a little human boy named Ken appears and Ken (the Starwolf) can’t shoot him. His fellow Starwolf mocks him and then takes aim a little Ken. Big Ken tries to stop him and blammo Ken has killed one of his own.

The supreme leader of the Raiders won’t stand for this and declares Ken a fugitive. After a daring escape from the raiders Ken is adrift in space. He is rescued by the crew of the Bacchus III. Captain Joe (Jo Shishido) sees that Ken may be able to help them in more ways then one, but the untrusting Rocky (Choei Takahashi) is just waiting for Ken to screw up. What adventures and excitement will our Fugitive Alien experience this week… I mean, this time, because this is not, I repeat, is not a movie made up of a bunch of episodes from a Japanese weekly series.

Movie Review:
Fugitive Alien is a “movie” made up of a bunch of episodes from a Japanese weekly series called Star Wolf (Sutaurufu). Star Wolf was made back in 1978, which should tell you just what the series was going for – Star Wars. The opening scenes with the Raiders attacking earth, the ships look suspiciously like the X-wing fighter Luke Skywalker uses to blow up the Death Star. And while the show was obviously inspired by the recent success of Mr. Lucas’ opus, there are a lot of other inspirations going around.

Bacchus III, the booziest ship
in the cosmos.
Anime like Space Battleship Yamato (aka Star Blazers) had been providing Japanese viewers with space opera adventures since 1974. So it makes sense that Star Wolf feels a lot like a live action anime series, more often than not. Captain Joe is typical of the rough and ready commander type. Ken is typical of the misunderstood, but brave and strong hero type. Even Tammy (Miyuki Tanigawa) is cheerful and perky and plays the token girl in the all male crew.

The acting and the camerawork in Fugitive Alien  follow suit. Most of the parts are played pretty broadly, with the exception being the evil leader of the wolf raiders who shows no emotions when he orders the death of hundreds. But everyone else is over the top and having a good time. The camera work uses bursts of quick editing, as well as multiple zooms so you can see every pore on a persons’ face – a technique very popular in anime in the late ‘70s and ‘80s.

But some of the adventures reminded me strongly of the original series of Star Trek, especially the story arc on the alien world where negotiations are taking place between Captain Joe and a miniature leader dressed like a Mongol warlord. But most of the space battles, Ken’s daring escapes and the crew’s ability to work together reminds me strongly of space opera anime series like Macross (or Robotech if you prefer) or Outlaw Star.

Don't let the red clown wig fool
you, Ken will shoot first.
I’ve made this sound pretty good so far, but just like anime, there are some amazingly bizarre and goofy touches in this series that make it ripe for riffing. The first thing you see is the Wolf Raiders, supposedly fearsome invaders, except for the small fact that they are wearing helmet with bright read clown wigs attached to the inside of them. I don’t care how much destruction and carnage you create, if you’re dressed like that people are going to laugh. Then you get odd things like Ken’s explosive buttons on his jumpsuit, or the whole scene with Rocky and the forklift. You can’t help but ask questions. Why is the leader of the Wolf Raiders made up like a kabuki actor? Why does Ken’s old fiancĂ© have long blonde hair, even though she’s obviously Japanese? What is hidden inside Captain Joe’s huge, huge cheeks?

But the real culprit here is whoever decided to make a buck off of this series, because it was old by the time 1987 rolled around. Star Wars was long over and considered un-cool (although Star Trek had a pretty solid following thanks to the success of The Next Generation series). They took a dozen episodes or so, edited them down in a bare bones fashion and slapped a ridiculous dub track to create Fugitive Alien.

As you may have guessed the final product makes very little sense. Some scenes flow better than others, and the whole opening with Ken actually establishes him pretty well. But the horrible editing, the amazing lame voice acting pretty much turns what could have been a fun television series into one of the most astoundingly bizarre sci-fi “movies” out there. It’s little wonder that Joel and the bots tackled this movie, not just once, but twice!

Episode Review:  
"Yes! A leatherette jumpsuit!"
Yep, you read that right. Fugitive Alien was featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000 back in the cable access season and then again on Comedy Central during season three. I’ve never seen the cable access season, and frankly I’ve heard they aren’t nearly as good as the later work. I’ll take the cast and crew’s word on it. Instead I’ll focus on their Season Three effort.

Sandy Frank was the man behind the plan of grabbing Japanese imports and repackaging them for the American market. He did this with the Gamera films as well as the turning the Gatchaman anime into Battle of the Planets in the late ‘70s. So what he’s done here with Fugitive Alien really comes as no surprise. It’s also no surprise that Joel and bots tackle it, since they were on a roll with Sandy Frank’s work in season three (tacking the Gamera films as well as a couple other television series turned into movies including Time of the Apes and Mighty Jack).

But this stuff is riffing gold! The Japanese style combined with the goofy voice acting and horrendous dubbing just keeps on delivering and delivering material for the boys to comment on.

In the opening scenes of Fugitive Alien when big Ken can’t shoot little Ken, Joel and the bots just assume everyone in the movie is named Ken. This creates a whole bunch of silly jokes and provides a running theme that pops up when you least expect it.

Tammy doubts the veracity of
Captain Joe's cheeks.
While Ken is on screen for most of the film, the character that generates the most laughs is Captain Joe. His huge cheeks, his blustery demeanor and his bizarre voice over actor just make him a perfect target. You could argue that the episode is at its best when Captain Joe is on the screen. Combined with the goofy vinyl outfits the crew wears Joel dubs them “Captain Gerbil and the Leatherettes”.

But the riffers also get a lot of mileage out of the overall style of the movie. As I mentioned there are a lot of quick edits and zooms (sometimes in combination). The boys will add all kinds of sound effects to these moments, especially the surprised gasp, or a simple “huh?” They also pick up on some of the bizarre music choices used in the film. Again I’m not sure if this is something the American distributor added in postproduction, or if this is original to the series, but you’ve got some great stuff here. 

When an oddly twanging piece kicks in as we see the majestic Bacchus III in dry doc, Tom asks if “Ma and Pa Kettle have boarded the ship.” But one of the most classic scenes from this episode is when an overtly brassy piece kicks in during infamous Forklift incident. The boys concoct a song to go along with the tune and sing it. That moment alone is worth seeking out this episode. And when the piece is used later the boys adapt their lyrics to suite the scene.

Fugitive Alien is also an episode filled with references to previous MST3K episodes. So long time viewers will get a kick out of mentions of characters, situations and even riffs from Pod People, Lost Continent, Cave Dwellers and more.

I’m going to stop here, because there are so many great moments and little humorous bits that I could comment forever on this episode. So lets just get to the host segment break down.

The episode opens with Joel pretending he’s a farmer and the bots are his animals. Has Joel lost his mind already? For the invention exchange the mad scientists create a device that delivers all your ear, nose and throat drops at once. Frank demonstrates and nearly drowns. Joel shows off his “musical chair” a lounger that doubles as a xylophone. Then Jack Perkins shows up to introduce the film (and never leaves the Mad Scientists alone for the rest of the episode). At the first break, Joel and bots are inspired by the Wolf Raiders goofy helmets to make their own. When they boys are back after the next round of movie, Joel is Captain Joe and the bots are terrified. At the next break Joel and bots attempt to break down the screenplay of the “film” using Syd Field’s screenplay technique (a book I used in University!). At the end of the film Joel shows off his explosive buttons on his jumpsuit. And back in Deep 13 the mad scientists have had enough of Jack Perkins and prepare to finish him off.

Joel channels his inner Captain
Joe. The bots look on in horror.
For me this is one of the best episodes of the entire series. The movie’s a hoot, the riffing is top notch and packed with laughs. Following this up with  Star Force: Fugitive Alien 2 or Time of the Apes and you've got a great one two punch of MST3K gold. In my opinion Season Three does not get better than this. It also earns its place in my top ten favorite episodes of all time. 

I give it five exploding jumpsuit buttons out of five.

This episode is available on Mystery Science Theater 3000 Vol. XXIV.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Anime Juke Box - Pulse - Macross Plus

A while back I wrote a blog about Yoko Kanno explaining why she is one of my favorite film/anime composers. In that blog I wrote a bit about her first real break out score for an anime series called Macross Plus. I figured it was time to revisit Kanno's music and in particular her J-pop. 

When one of the main characters in the series is an idol singer, you need a composer who can craft both score and songs. Kanno did both on Macross Plus. The other issue was that the idol was popular because she could sing any kind of song and appeal to any kind of listener. So the variety of songs is pretty interesting and impressive. Now keep in mind this was made in 1994, so much of the pop sound in these tracks is very grounded in the 90s.

The song I'm featuring is Pulse, which should remind listeners of the group Enigma who shot to fame in the early 90s with Sadeness Part 1. The opening music is actually used in the opening title card for Macross Plus, and the rest of the song appeared in various forms throughout the series. So here is Sharon Apple singing Pulse with a little help from Akino Arai.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Movie Music Musing – 2001: A Film Music Odyssey

Fellow blogger Richard Bellush over at Richard’s Pretension was blogging about music, and mentioned the score to 2001: A Space Odyssey. This got me thinking about film music for science fiction movies, and of course that lead to a blog. So you can all blame Richard for this one.

It is hard to find a film that impacted science fiction films more than 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick’s film inspired so many folks in so many fields of the film making industry. It also defined how science fiction films were going to look going forward. But Kubrick’s approach to the music in his film actually created an impact that isn’t too apparent at first.

During the production of 2001, Kubrick had a film composer attached to the movie. The composer was Alex North, a man who was known for his unique approach to film scoring. He was part of a new bread of film composers who were moving away from the symphonic sound of the golden age of film music. Composers like Korngold, Steiner and even Rozsa were considered to be too over the top and too old fashioned. Instead jazzy scores like the ones created by Bernstein for The Man with the Golden Arm or even John Barry’s scores to From Russia with Love and Goldfinger were taking film music in a new direction. North took modernistic approaches in current classical music and fused them into film scores. His work would often include atonal and dissonant music, filled with an emotional power that was a million miles from something like Steiner.

His approach gained more popularity he began to mentor younger composers like Jerry Goldsmith. North scored all kinds of films from human dramas like A Streetcar Named Desire to big budget historical epics like Cleopatra and The Agony and the Ecstasy. This was how he first came of Kubrick, who used North for his film Spartacus. The score to the Kirk Douglas film was immediately called one of North’s greatest achievements. It made sense for Kubrick to bring the composer on board for his grand space adventure.

North began work on 2001: A Space Odyssey focusing a brutal and atonal sound for the Dawn of Man sequence. The music is jagged, punishing and mysterious all in different ways.  In fact, you can hear how this style would influence the amazing score Jerry Goldsmith created for Planet of the Apes. The main titles the North created are very much based on Also sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss, a piece that Kubrick was using as a temp track for the film.

When the action moves to the Heywood Floyd’s journey to the moon, North shifted gears to a more melodic, but still modern sounding style. Here, he emphasized the beauty and wonder of space travel, while allowing the mystery of the alien artifact to creep into the score. At this point North stopped scoring 2001. He never worked on any music for the final two sequences involving the Jupiter mission or Dave’s journey into the infinite.

At the time Kubrick said he was thinking of not using any music in those portions of the film and so North figured his job was done. It wasn’t until the premier that North realized that none of his music for the film was used. Instead Kubrick had gone with his temp tracks of classical music for the film. North was less than pleased, and never worked with Kubrick again. A few years later another composer came forward and said he was commissioned to work on music for 2001: A Space Odyssey that was based on pieces from Gustav Mahler. No pieces from that score have ever surfaced. However, North’s work has been recovered, and can be found in two forms. The original recordings were made available in a limited edition from Intrada records. Jerry Goldsmith found the composers score and recreated it with the National Philharmonic Orchestra for Varese Saraband. It even includes the opening titles from a documentary North scored called Africa.

While North’s score is intriguing to listen to, I really can’t imagine watching 2001: A Space Odyssey without the classical pieces Kubrick ended up with. The use of Ligeti’s haunting Requiem for the monolith, the wonderful Lux Aeterna for Heywoods journey to the dig site creates an uncanny feeling the scene. Also sprach Zarathustra is the perfect fit for the main titles and final triumphant moment, and it trumps North’s work (as good as it is). I even like the semi-comic use of Blue Danube by Strauss, such a familiar and yet perfectly synched moment. The use of Johan and Richard Strauss, along with Khachaturiam’s Gayane ballet suite give the viewer a classical grounding. It allows us to hear something familiar among the beautiful and amazing visual effects. And when the truly alien moments arrive, Ligeti’s more abstract and atonal music adds that touch. It really is an amazing selection of pieces that deliver a greater impact.

That concept of using a familiar classical sound for science fiction also made an impact on George Lucas. In the 1970’s film scores for science fiction films had trended back toward the modern sounding often using harsh electronics or groovy guitars. Scores to films like Logan’s Run were the norm, and something that Lucas wanted to get away from. His experimental film THX-1138 had used a very dissonant score by Lalo Schifran (the man behind the music to Mission Impossible and Enter the Dragon but who had an experimental side to his music).

But Star Wars needed something a bit different. Since Lucas film was steeped in the feel and concept of movie serials like Flash Gordon from the 1940’s why not use a film score that was familiar and old fashioned. That was the direction John Williams used when creating a score using elements of classical composers like Richard Wagner and Stravinsky. It also included the swash-bucking sounds created by Korngold for films like The Sea Hawk and a swooping love theme that could have come right from Max Steiner or Miklos Rozsa. The familiar style of the music helped ground the audience with the amazing visual effects and bizarre alien creatures. It was the same approach Kubrick used, but with Williams crafting his own themes and working with them in a unique and exciting way. Star Wars became the new template for the sound science fiction films were expected to have from 1977 into the 2000s before Hans Zimmer’s sound started taking over.

Meanwhile, Jerry Goldsmith had never forgotten the work his mentor Alex North had fashioned for 2001: A Space Odyssey. I mentioned that Goldsmith used an approach for Planet of the Apes (also 1968) that was very much influenced by North’s score for 2001’s scenes in the dawn of man sequence. But Goldsmith would not really return to the sound until he was brought on for Star Trek: The Motion Picture nearly a decade later.

The creation of that score was a tough one for Goldsmith. He was writing music for a film that wasn’t complete and missing huge sequences because the special effects were not done. Goldsmith started composing for the scenes that were wrapped and edited. One of these was the flyby of the Enterprise, a sequence lasting nearly six minutes. If you listen to his first approach to these scenes you can hear how North’s score influenced his approach. It’s a bit atonal, but with a melodic sweeping grandeur that North used for the Moon sequences of 2001. It’s beautiful work.

Director Robert Wise wasn’t happy with it. He met with Goldsmith and told him the score wasn’t working, but couldn’t put his finger on the problem. Goldsmith was already frustrated with the whole situation and was close to pulling out of the whole project when Wise finally said, “It has no theme.” John Williams Star Wars score was influencing Wise’s take on the film.

Goldsmith went back to the drawing board, taking a motif he created in his initial approach and fleshing it out. He went big and went bold, toning down the melodic moments, but keeping grandeur. The result was his most famous musical theme, and one that would become a staple in the Star Trek franchise music.  But with all that said, Goldsmith’s final score for Star Trek: The Motion Picture contains many moments that remind the listener of Alex North’s score to 2001: A Space Odyssey. With the La La Land release of the complete score to Star Trek: The Motion Picture the early work by Goldsmith is available to enjoy and explore.

So there you have it, a look at how music written for 2001: A Space Odyssey ended up influencing three of the most long lasting science fiction franchises. We don’t get such impact in film music very often. And this one was a doozy.

And if you haven't yet, check out John Kenneth Muir's excellent review of 2001: A Space Odyssey, give it a read. It is well worth it.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Score Sample - Much Ado About Nothing - Patrick Doyle

Another film music composer I haven't blogged about, but who I enjoy listening to, is Patrick Doyle. He rose to fame as being the composer of choice for Kenneth Branaugh. The two have a working relationship that spans back to Henry V back in 1989. Doyle reminds me of Michael Giacchino in that he always brings energy and excitement to his scores. Some have accused Doyle of going over the top, and sometimes his music can be distracting in a film. But as an album listen, his work is always entertaining. One of my favorite works by Doyle is Much Ado About Nothing. It's got a bit of everything, sweeping romance, dark murmuring (for the plotting scenes), and a couple of songs from Shakespeare's play put to music. My favorite piece has to be his energetic Overture that plays during the opening credits. 

Friday, March 7, 2014

Battle Beyond the Stars (1980)

After the huge success of Star Wars, space opera films were all the rage. A whole slew of imitators attempted to cash in on the popularity of the film, and create their own quickie. The master of quickie films himself, Roger Coreman got into the act tying some inspiration from Seven Samurai (and The Magnificent Seven) with classic space opera adventures of yesteryear. This was the result.

Lord Sador (John Saxon) has to be evil because of his name. So he arrives on the planet Akir and threatens them with servitude or annihilation, as is his way. But the people of Akir decide they want to defend their homes, and they send Shad (Richard Thomas) on a quest to find mercenaries who will defend them from Sador and his fleet. Shad jumps into his starship named Nell (voiced by Lynn Carlin) and seeks out some help.

Along the way he meets the Cowboy (George Pepard), Gelt (Robert Vaughn) a cold merc, Saint-Exmin (Sybil Danning) a voluptuous valkyrie, Cayman (Morgan Woodward) a reptilian being with a score to settle, and a group of aliens called Nestor. Rounding out the group is Nanelia, a scientist who falls for Shad and uses her knowledge of computers to help the cause. But do they have any hope in destroying Sador in this Battle Beyond the Stars?

Good Points:
  • Moves at a brisk fun pace
  • Some creative visual design and effects
  • The cast seems to be having a good time

Bad Points:
  • You can point to just about any element and call it derivative
  • Those looking for serious sci-fi will be disappointed
  • Ends rather abruptly

This is one entertaining movie. It knows that it is basically trying to cash in on the Star Wars craze, but it also tries to spin some things in a new direction. There is a real spirit of fun in all the performances and execution; it really carries over into the whole film. James Horner’s score is big and bold. The movie moves at a brisk pace and while the ending it kinda abrupt, the whole thing is well worth checking out or revisiting if you haven’t seen it in a while.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 4
Sound: 4
Acting: 3
Script: 4
Music: 4
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 5
Total:  4

Curious about a full review, sent me an email and I’ll make additional thoughts to this review.