Monday, April 8, 2013

AFOS finally adds to rotation the expanded score from a great Chicago movie, The Fugitive, while it's time to look back at Chicagoan and Fugitive admirer Roger Ebert's tastes in film music

Look, ma, no CGI!
(Photo source: DVD Beaver)
Jurassic Park, which stomped back into theaters a couple of days ago in a 3D-converted 20th anniversary edition, conquered the box office in the summer of 1993. But that summer, because I was at that time a fan of A&E's reruns of The Fugitive, David Janssen's noirish, anti-authoritarian show from the '60s, I was more excited about--and ended up more enthralled by--a different blockbuster, director Andrew Davis' film version of The Fugitive. Sure, dinosaurs are cool, but white-knuckle, non-CGI-assisted action sequences involving narrow escapes from bus-train collisions and spur-of-the-moment swan dives from dams into waterfalls are cooler.

So are both Harrison Ford in the role of Janssen's memorably laconic and twitchy Dr. Richard Kimble (perfect recasting) and Tommy Lee Jones' entertaining reinterpretation of Gerard, who was a much more unlikable and humorless cop on the original series (Jones won an Oscar for his work, and let's pretend U.S. Marshals never happened). Blink and you'll miss Neil Flynn as a transit cop in a scene that Scrubs later used as a clever gag about the murky past of Flynn's nameless janitor character on the show. A not-as-tiny element of The Fugitive is James Newton Howard's original score.

The first score that Howard composed for a blockbuster is a pretty decent score with a couple of terrific cues. "Helicopter Chase" is the same theme that Debbie Allen's dancers performed a bizarre interpretive dance to at the 1994 Oscars (a moment that elicited snickers from many TV critics, including then-New York Times film critic Janet Maslin, who cracked, "Who ever said the score from The Fugitive had a good beat? Who said you could dance to it?"). The other standout cue is "It's Over/End Credits" (the theme for Kimble during this cue was later recycled by composer Louis Febre in CBS' 2000 Fugitive reboot with Tim Daly as Kimble and William T. Michaelson, er, Mykelti Williamson as Gerard).

In 2009, La-La Land Records released an expanded edition of the Fugitive score and corrected a huge audio mistake on the previous release of Howard's score, which nobody outside of Howard and his fellow musicians would have noticed (someone accidentally reversed the left and right channels on all the tracks). The booklet art on this two-CD La-La Land set is strange because it doesn't contain a single photo of Jones' craggy face and is filled with pics of the One-Armed Man, for the two people out there who are fans of the One-Armed Man. DVD producers can't clear pop songs on box sets of TV shows without ponying up an arm and a leg, and now movie stars' faces inside soundtrack album booklets can't be cleared either?

This new Battlestar Galactica prequel, Blood and Chromeo, sounds interesting. I'm looking forward to hearing all the old-model Cylons speak through P-Thugg's talkbox.
Though I enjoyed the 1993 film, I never got around to copping the 2009 release until a few weeks ago, when La-La Land posted that the album will go out of print in April. Selections from the now-out-of-print album are now part of the "AFOS Prime" playlist, so you don't have to search every warehouse, farmhouse, henhouse, outhouse and doghouse to hear some of this album.

***

The Fugitive made great use of Chicago locations--that St. Patrick's Day parade where Kimble hid from Gerard wasn't in the script and was an event Davis, a Chicago native, received permission to shoot in at the last minute--but that's not the only reason why the late Roger Ebert, who was also a Chicago native, loved the film and considered it "the best of all the summer thrillers" that dropped in 1993.

'I don't care!,' said the dude at La-La Land who put together the Tommy Lee Jones-less Fugitive soundtrack booklet photos as well.
(Photo source: DVD Beaver)
The louder parts of Jones' Oscar-winning performance are what everyone from Scott Glenn in a 2008 Monk guest shot to more recently, Tim on Justified imitates or quotes from (and by the way, Tim was referencing a movie Justified cast member Nick Searcy appeared in), but the quieter parts of Jones' performance were also fascinating to Ebert. "As the chase continues, [Gerard] gradually becomes convinced of the innocence of his prey," wrote Ebert, "but this conviction is wisely never spelled out in dialogue, and remains ambivalent, expressed in the look in his eyes, or his pauses between words."

The original series was notable for delivering exposition through opening voiceovers by narrator William Conrad, which 2000 Fugitive series showrunner John McNamara said were a holdover from radio in an Entertainment Weekly article about the 2000 reboot. The film ditches the narration and avoids having characters deliver infodumpy dialogue, except in believable situations where minor infodumps are called for, like in Gerard's famous "Our fugitive has been on the run for 90 minutes!" speech to his team. As Ebert observed, the characters instead gradually reveal the way they are thinking, mostly through their facial expressions.

"The Fugitive has the standards of an earlier, more classic time, when acting, character and dialogue were meant to stand on their own, and where characters continued to change and develop right up until the last frame," wrote Ebert at the end of his four-star review of the film.

Ebert himself was a writer from an earlier, more classic time, when the newspaper industry that he and Gene Siskel emerged from wasn't in shambles and film criticism was everywhere on TV. Both lovers of all things Chicago and haters of deep-dish "Chicago-style" pizza (I agree with their opinion of "thumbs down" regarding that kind of pizza), Siskel and Ebert pioneered the movie review show format of two critics debating each other. It's a format that, frankly, sucked when Siskel and Ebert weren't the critics debating each other because "the original frenemies," as one of Ebert's Chicago Sun-Times colleagues referred to the duo in an oral history about their friendship, were the only ones who were great at it on-screen.

A 1995 snapshot of the St. Critics' Day Parade in Chicago, which included a float full of Dancing Michael Wilmingtons.
Siskel and Ebert were among several critics who poked fun at themselves in guest shots on the animated series The Critic, but their sense of humor didn't end with "Siskel & Ebert & Jay & Alice," the classic Critic episode about a rift between Siskel and Ebert and fictional critic Jay Sherman's rom-com-style attempt to reunite them. Peep Ebert's brutal takedowns of unwatchable atrocities like North and long before that Rob Reiner flop or the Critic guest shot, The Lonely Lady. Sure, Rex Reed, who also turned up on The Critic, has a sense of humor too, but his sucks. The racist and hacky Reed is straight out of that old Ben Affleck SNL sketch about pun-loving blurb whores who are too in love with the sounds of their own voices and try too hard to be funny ("Deuce Bigalow? More like Deuce Gigg-a-lo. And I'm going to Big-a-go again!"). Ebert proved that a film critic--a profession that's been filled with a lot of humorless or vapid hacks in ugly sweaters--can have a great sense of humor without being a racist and ill-informed dickweed.

When Siskel died, the old-fashioned movie review show genre died along with him, although Current TV's Rotten Tomatoes Show, which eschewed the point/counterpointing and took a more comedic approach to the format, was a fun successor to Siskel and Ebert's show and was, frankly, a stronger show than Ebert's own Ebert Presents: At the Movies. (The Rotten Tomatoes Show had the potential to become The Daily Show of movie review shows--in other words, a comedic hit show that's more brutally honest about its subjects and more sharply written than much more serious shows of that kind--had it not been cancelled by Current.) No one has been able to re-create Siskel and Ebert's occasionally volatile on-screen chemistry. Richard Roeper was hardly as enjoyable a sparring partner for Ebert (or as passionate about film) as Siskel was, and Ebert Presents was less of a point/counterpoint show and more of a newsmagazine about cinema. I never really got into Ebert Presents, but that show, along with the Ebert site's group of foreign correspondents, was one of Ebert's ways of getting a new generation of critics to carry on his brand of intelligent and witty criticism after he lost both his jaw and speaking voice to cancer. (It's a shame that the disease cost Ebert the ability to speak right when podcasting exploded and became a more polished-sounding medium. A podcast about cinema hosted by Ebert would have been terrific.)

Cancer took Ebert away from us a couple of days after I tweeted that I despise politically conservative film critics like Michael Medved. Ebert was the opposite of that conservative lot, a man who embraced change (although gamers who disagreed with his controversial argument that video games don't qualify as an art form might have found him to be conservative regarding that topic). He wasn't afraid to admit he was sometimes wrong about films he negatively reviewed. When film criticism became less prevalent on TV and more so on the Internet, Ebert took to the Internet and was one of many writers from the print world who brought their brand of professionalism to online writing about film (it didn't have to be just in that typo-ridden, mostly unreadable Ain't-It-Cool-News writing style). Then when cancer started to take its toll on Ebert and deprived him of his speaking voice, he didn't quit writing. He became more prolific on the Internet, intelligently blogging and tweeting about film and a variety of other subjects, including cancer and politics.

As online tributes and remembrances of Ebert continue to pour in (peep that #ToRogerEbert hashtag Matt Zoller Seitz started on Saturday night), I'm glad to see a few mentions of Ebert's political side. We Asian Americans are quite aware of his political side and his championing of both diversity in film (but he did so without making a big deal about his wife Chaz's race, as Michael Mirasol tweeted) and filmmakers of color, like his badass defense of Better Luck Tomorrow after a Mr. Rosso lookalike at a Sundance screening/panel discussion of the film complained to director Justin Lin and his cast about their "empty and amoral" portrayal of Asian Americans. Like a boss, Ebert responded to that condescending moviegoer with "Asian American characters have the right to be whoever the hell they want to be!"

The Palace: So This Is Where the Asians Hang Out?, Chapter 5 by Jimmy J. Aquino
Then when the Harrison Ford vehicle Extraordinary Measures whitewashed the real-life Asian American doctor who was integral to the film's source material and then a few months later, The Last Airbender stunk up the screen with white actors in the Asian heroes' roles, Ebert took both films to task. What other white critic outside of say, ThinkProgress would do that?

In these last few days, we're also learning more about Ebert's life with both Chaz, a former lawyer who executive-produced Ebert Presents and saved her husband from "a descent into lonely decrepitude," and his step-grandchildren, his attachment to the rice cooker, his mentorship of younger writers and his encouragement of those with disabilities like his. What about his tastes in film music? In 2009, he wrote that Nino Rota was "the greatest composer in the history of movies. Who else wrote scores in the 1950s and 1960s that are in print and selling well today? I have seven of them on iTunes."

Aside from Rota's outstanding body of work for Federico Fellini, what other scores did this legendary writer with such a strong sense of worldwide film history and such a zest for life enjoy? Was Ebert a fan of both scores that have been frequently sampled by beatmakers and more recent sampleworthy scores like Basement Jaxx's work on Attack the Block just like I am? Or was he having flashbacks to his days with Russ Meyer and digging on the Schoolgirl Report comp like Terry Gross and her husband apparently have been doing? (Gross, of course, had no idea that it's called Schoolgirl Report because with cover artwork like Schoolgirl Report's, no one would be paying attention to the album's title.)

Six thumbs up, way up, for Glowy Entrance: The Motion Picture.
A simple Googling of Ebert's tastes in film music leads to the partial program for "A Tribute to Roger Ebert," a 2011 Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert in which the compositions were selected by Ebert and conductor Richard Kaufman. The "I Could Watch a Fellini Film on the Radio" playlist I assembled combines the Rota scores Ebert posted in his 2009 blog post of the same name with the scores that were excerpted at the 2011 concert (I wasn't there, so I picked compositions that I assume were performed that night).

Before the CSO concert took place, someone at Chicagoist wrote that he wanted to see the CSO bust out an orchestral rendition of "Look Up at the Bottom" from the enormously entertaining Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, one of three Meyer flicks Ebert co-wrote with Meyer during his pre-sober screenwriting days. "Look Up at the Bottom" would have been awesome, so the playlist concludes with the actual song from BVD (hell, I'll throw in the entire BVD soundtrack album too).

Ebert's CSO concert picks were on the conventional side, and some of those compositions weren't even written for the screen, but you can never go wrong with Rota, Ennio Morricone's uplifting Mission score or Alex North's rejected 2001 main title theme, and the playlist gives a good idea of what sort of music satiated Ebert, especially during the worst days of his illness, when his wife would bring him speakers for his iPod to help him stay focused. "Music of all kinds became a lifeline," said Ebert about the healing power of music.

I'm tired of these articles about Ebert's passing that take his long-running show's weekly closing catchphrase and conclude with "The balcony is closed forever." Actually, Ebert opened up a whole new balcony full of intelligent, tech-savvy voices to carry on his humanist approach to writing after his leave of presence, and they're voices that are way more diverse than the ones he was surrounded by in the world of film criticism before the Internet. Digital-era Ebert and his protégés have helped make me--an ex-film critic of color who lost the appetite for pursuing film criticism partly because there were very few writers of color or writers from my younger generation I could relate to--feel a little less alone.

"I Could Watch a Fellini Film on the Radio" tracklist
1. Nino Rota, "Lola (Yes Sir, That's My Baby): Parlami di Me (Valzer) / Stormy Weather," La Dolce Vita
2. Nino Rota, "8 e 1/2," The Ultimate Best of Federico Fellini & Nino Rota
3. Nino Rota, "Roma," The Ultimate Best of Federico Fellini & Nino Rota
4. Nino Rota, "Amarcord," Amarcord
5. Nino Rota, "O Venezia, Venaga, Venusia," Casanova
6. The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, "Love Theme" (from Romeo and Juliet), The Essential Nino Rota Film Music Collection
7. Nino Rota, "The Godfather Finale," The Godfather
8. Maurice Jarre, "Overture," Lawrence of Arabia
9. London Symphony Orchestra, "Theme" (from The Sundowners), The Greatest Film Scores of Dimitri Tiomkin
10. Malcolm Arnold, "Colonel Bogey March," The Bridge on the River Kwai
11. Ennio Morricone, "On Earth as It Is in Heaven," The Mission
12. Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, "Fanfare [2001: A Space Odyssey]," Star Wars: The Sound of Hollywood
13. The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, "2001: A Space Odyssey - Also Sprach Zarathustra," 2001: Music from the Films of Stanley Kubrick
14. The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, "The Right Stuff," The Science Fiction Album
15. Anton Karas, "Main Title/Holly Martins Arrives in Vienna," The Third Man
16. Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra of London, "Die Walküre: Ride of the Valkyries," Classical Music Library: Volume 5, Power Classics
17. The Boston Pops Orchestra, "Parade of Charioteers" (from Ben-Hur), Summon the Heroes
18. Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra, "Casablanca (Suite)," Movie Memories: Music from the Greatest Films
19. National Philharmonic Orchestra, "Rosebud and Finale" (from Citizen Kane), Citizen Kane: The Classic Film Scores of Bernard Herrmann
20. Henry Mancini, "The Pink Panther Theme," The Pink Panther
21. Henry Mancini, "Moon River (Original Main Title)," Breakfast at Tiffany's: Special 50th Anniversary Edition
22. Henry Mancini, "Two for the Road (Main Title-Instrumental)," Two for the Road
23. The Boston Pops Orchestra, "Tara's Theme" (from Gone with the Wind), John Williams & The Boston Pops Orchestra: A Celebration
24. John Williams, "End Credits," E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
25. BONUS TRACK: Lynn Carey & Barbara Robison, "Look on Up at the Bottom," Beyond the Valley of the Dolls

2 comments:

  1. Great article, man. As a black man, I often mirror what you are saying. But in today's world, I can honestly say the diversification of black characters on screen, by no means extraordinary, is lightyears better than that of Asians. A constant struggle, sir. Keep fighting and talking up! And that cartoon was hilarious. Lol....

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "that cartoon was hilarious"

      Do you mean the Critic episode with Siskel and Ebert or the loser who complained about Better Luck Tomorrow? Because what a cartoon that guy was!

      Delete