Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Doctor and the Devil: These are among the tracks I've added to AFOS rotation this month

John Nathan-Turner didn't like how these opening titles looked like a trip through a vacuum cleaner tube. I think he was confusing 'vacuum cleaner tube' with 'colonoscopy video.'
(Photo source: Art of the Title)

Delia Derbyshire, "Doctor Who (Original Theme)" (now playing during "Hall H")

In England, hiding behind the couch became a tradition for kids who grew up watching monsters chase after the Doctor and his companions on telly on Saturday night. But in America, those of us who grew up watching The Electric Company and 3-2-1 Contact back-to-back at 5pm on the local PBS station weren't exposed to Doctor Who on only one night of the week. Thanks to PBS, we were exposed to it every weeknight, right after the Bloodhound Gang would try to bust a cocaine ring or something. The Doctor Who opening titles meant that 3-2-1 Contact was over and it was time to change the channel as soon as possible because for a four-year-old like me, the Doctor Who title sequence--with its intense-looking, psychedelic slit-scan vortex FX, its photo of a somber-looking Tom Baker and that otherworldly piece of early electronica written by Ron Grainer and performed by BBC Radiophonic Workshop musician Delia Derbyshire--was scary as shit.

But unlike you Brits who yelped and cowered from the sight of giant pepper shakers with toilet plunger arms hollering "Exterminate!" at'cha boy, I didn't hide behind the couch whenever the Doctor Who titles came on. My brain merely shivered a little and then I switched to a different channel. That's how I rolled, and to me, the Doctor Who titles were scarier than any of the rubber monsters I would see a few years later, which was when I finally had the guts to get past those spooky and unsettling titles and watch the rest of the show.

"I remember as a child I was terrified by [the theme]. It just strikes fear into your very soul," noted British comedian Bill Bailey at the start of his "Docteur Qui" number during Bill Bailey's Remarkable Guide to the Orchestra, in which he amusingly broke it down on the piano and pointed out how Grainer's melody is basically Belgian jazz.

The two Derbyshires
Delia Derbyshire (top); Sarah Winter as Derbyshire in An Adventure in Space and Time (bottom)

In An Adventure in Space and Time, the BBC's recent made-for-TV biopic about William Hartnell's resurgence as a TV star during Doctor Who's first few years, we get to briefly see Derbyshire (played by Sarah Winter) fiddle around with analog tape reels and perform the theme on keyboard (she's also seen explaining the origin of the TARDIS dematerialization sound FX: house keys scraped against a piano wire). Today, her arrangement of the theme--which, except for a few tweaks in the sound FX and the musical transition from episode credits to opening scene, remained unchanged in the opening titles from 1963 to 1979--isn't scary-sounding at all because since childhood, we've been subjected to much scarier things, like Dana Perino trying to rap or Alison Gold singing about Chinese food. But it hasn't lost its power as a trippy and effective musical encapsulation of exploring the unknown, which is why when I received Silva Screen's Doctor Who: The 50th Anniversary Collection and the Derbyshire version turned up as Track 1, I immediately added it to the "Hall H" playlist.

How filthy! Inspector Spacetime was never this filthy!
(Photo source: SMOSH)

Murray Gold, "All the Strange, Strange Creatures" (from series 3 of Doctor Who; now playing during "AFOS Prime," "New Cue Revue" and "Hall H")

One thing I've noticed about modern Doctor Who is that Murray Gold, who's been the show's composer since 2005, hasn't really referenced the Grainer theme, outside of the opening and closing titles and the "Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords" drumbeat motif that represents a certain old nemesis of the Doctor's. It's understandable because the Grainer theme doesn't really represent the Doctor as a heroic character--the theme's alien nature signifies that it's more of a theme about traveling through space and time and, like I said before, encountering the unknown--so Gold has written all-new themes to represent the heroism of the Doctor and his homies and emphasize the adventure side of this modernized and much less lethargically paced Doctor Who. These themes are more heroic-sounding than the Grainer piece, and because the BBC has given modern Doctor Who a bigger budget to work with, they're more cinematic and epic in tone and orchestration. (They also make for slightly more appealing listening than the mostly synthy and atonal score cues that were written for the show from the early '70s to the late '80s. Hardcore Doctor Who fans might enjoy that '70s-to-'80s section of the 50th Anniversary Collection album more than most listeners for nostalgic reasons, while others who are only familiar with Doctor Who in its present form might find that part of the compilation to be kind of grueling as music.)

The rousing "I Am the Doctor" motif Gold introduced in Matt Smith's first year as the Doctor is a good example of modern Doctor Who's cinematic sound, as is Gold's "All the Strange, Strange Creatures" motif from a couple of years before. "All the Strange, Strange Creatures," which reappears on the 50th Anniversary Collection album, is referred to as "The Trailer Music" because it was used in series 3 trailers, while I remember it best in an alternate form as the cue during the pivotal moment when an amnesiac professor played by special guest star Derek Jacobi regains his memory, and it turns out he's the long-unseen Master, the Moriarty to the Doctor's Sherlock.

Fuck those songs of the Ood. After 50 years of running through corridors, 'Runnin'' by the Pharcyde is really the Doctor's song.

Outside the context of the show, "All the Strange, Strange Creatures" brings back all those memories of the 10th Doctor and Martha Jones running around and continuing the show's tradition of chase scenes inside corridors. White sneakers--or as the 11th Doctor and the War Doctor prefer to call them in "The Day of the Doctor," sand shoes--just look wrong when paired with a suit and tie, but now that I think about it, the 10th Doctor's preference for sneaks makes some sense because of all that running he did.

She's probably thinking, 'Damn, I miss those Flashdance leg warmers.'

Elmer Bernstein, "Theme from Devil in a Blue Dress" (now playing during "The Whitest Block Ever")

Before his breakout role in One False Move director Carl Franklin's 1995 Walter Mosley adaptation Devil in a Blue Dress as Mouse the trigger-happy thug ("If you ain't want him killed, why'd you leave him with me?"), Don Cheadle was known only as the uptight, by-the-book D.A. on Picket Fences--or for that one time he showed up as Will's best friend from the Philly streets really early on in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air's run. Devil in a Blue Dress was meant to be a Denzel Washington vehicle, but the unassuming-looking, average-sized Cheadle straight-up stole the flick, like how the equally unassuming-looking, modest-of-height Kendrick Lamar steals damn near every posse cut or collabo he guests on these days: with attitude, energy, calm and wit.

Here we see Mouse being his usual pacifistic self.
(Photo source: The Blue Vial)

The future Hotel Rwanda and House of Lies star's performance as Mouse also outshined the presence of Jennifer Beals, who, of course, looked like a million bucks in that '40s L.A. steez as the titular femme fatale, but she otherwise didn't make much of an impression in the role. Instead of that film, the place where Beals really got to shine in a crime genre setting was the short-lived 2011 Shawn Ryan cop show The Chicago Code, where she starred as an ambitious Windy City police superintendent--the first female superintendent in department history--who attempts to build a case against a corrupt and powerful alderman played by Delroy Lindo. Unfortunately, the amount of people who saw her show was even smaller than the minuscule audience that went to see the underperforming Devil in a Blue Dress in 1995.

The Devil in a Blue Dress theme that's in rotation during "The Whitest Block Ever" is one of only three score tracks on Columbia Records' Devil in a Blue Dress soundtrack album. While I wish the track contained a motif that reps Mouse, it's got the late Elmer Bernstein at his noirish best during his low-key and gorgeous-sounding motifs for Beals' Daphne Monet (is that an ondes Martenot I hear during her motif?) and Washington's Easy Rawlins.

'Aw shit, Mouse! You killed somebody again? I just waxed this damn floor!'

Easy's a character who really deserves another film built around him. I doubt Washington will ever reprise the role, but I'd like to see him and Cheadle play an older Easy and Mouse in an adaptation of Mosley's 2005 Easy novel Cinnamon Kiss or this year's Little Green. There are so many movies with African American stars in the roles of supercops. Hollywood, if you really want to impress the hip-hop generation, make more black private eye movies like Devil in a Blue Dress and the 1971 Shaft. We tend to identify more with gumshoes, especially ones of color like Easy or current Justified staff writer Leonard Chang's Allen Choice. Unless it's Yemana, Meldrick, Luther, the Major Case folks on The Wire, the diverse pack of detectives on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, a Shawn Ryan creation like the aforementioned Chicago Code or maybe Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park on Hawaii Five-0, we don't give a shit about the police.

Uh, Bridget, I'd think about where that cash has been before I'd put my tongue on it.

Joseph Vitarelli, "Main Title" (from The Last Seduction; now playing during "AFOS Prime")

Continuing on the femme fatale tip is the jazzy main theme Joseph Vitarelli wrote for Bridget Gregory, Linda Fiorentino's fast-thinking schemer in The Last Seduction, director John Dahl's 1994 neo-noir/fish-out-of-water comedy. Vitarelli's theme is one of my favorite elements of The Last Seduction because of its drum brush strokes and those piano and clarinet riffs that scream out New York, in as similar a fashion as Bridget's new but not-so-different small-town identity as Wendy Kroy does (the name's an anagram of New York). Actually, I added Vitarelli's theme to AFOS rotation back in November, but nobody listens to AFOS or reads this blog these days, so who gives a shit?

I actually once heard some guy say, 'Faye Dunaway in Barfly's got thighs like Belgian waffles.' I still don't know what the fuck that means. Does that mean her thighs are high in cholesterol?

The portion of the main title theme that's featured during the rough cut of the Last Seduction trailer that's below isn't the Bridget half of the theme. Instead, it's a motif author David Butler refers to as "Foiling Men" in his 2002 book Jazz Noir: Listening to Music from Phantom Lady to The Last Seduction, which is, sadly, the only place of lengthy discussion I've seen anywhere about this underrated score.

"Its main use in the film is at those points when a male character is being duped or has just realized that they have been fooled, usually by Bridget," wrote Butler in Jazz Noir. "The 'Foiling Men' theme consists of fast runs up and down a scale, suggesting a process that is too fast and dizzying for the men who are not fully aware of what is going on until it is too late."

"Foiling Men" is actually quite effective during the trailer because many of the clips show Bridget doing exactly that to the likes of her husband Clay (Bill Pullman) and her boytoy Mike (Peter Berg). But that Bridget half of the theme is just golden, as it perfectly encapsulates a couple of the things that make The Last Seduction as compelling a noir as Double Indemnity or Miller's Crossing: Bridget's intellect and her skills as a master manipulator.

"In The Last Seduction, Bridget's victory is achieved through her mental prowess. Moving away from the traditions of noir jazz, cool jazz is used in the film to underscore the intellectual qualities of Bridget and the lack of such qualities demonstrated by Mike and Clay," wrote Butler. "The film's use of jazz as something other than anguished and sexual underscore is original, however, particularly for film noir. Dahl and Vitarelli seem to have been aware of the themes that jazz has traditionally signified and recast them."

Here we see Flying Lotus enthusiastically checking his AOL inbox.

Flying Lotus and Thundercat, "Aqua teen 24" and "Aqua teen inst 24" (both from Aqua TV Show Show; now playing during "AFOS Prime," "New Cue Revue," "Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" and "Hall H")

As the Red Bull Music Academy Twitter feed once said, your TV show wins if you get instrumental hip-hop artist FlyLo and his labelmate and frequent collaborator, the bassist known as Thundercat, to do the theme song. For the opening titles of the latest incarnation of Aqua Teen Hunger Force, which featured a theme by Schoolly D for its first seven seasons (damn, Aqua has been on for longer than that already?), the creators turned to a couple of other names from the hip-hop world: FlyLo, who's composed bumper music for Aqua's home network Adult Swim, and Thundercat. The duo's smooth-sounding theme, which FlyLo included as part of the free Ideas+drafts+loops compilation he dropped last week, is kind of an odd fit for such an anarchic and silly show, but it's a groove that's sicker than the blood in Carl Brutananadilewski's stool.

'I'm gonna make love to you, left hand/Gonna lay you down by the fire.'
(Photo source: David OReilly)

Flying Lotus, "About That Time" (from Adventure Time's "A Glitch Is a Glitch" episode; now playing during "Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" and "Hall H")

Any piece of animation that concludes with dope end title music by FlyLo is a keeper in my book, like the recent all-3-D-animated Adventure Time episode "A Glitch Is a Glitch." "About That Time" is another track FlyLo threw onto his free Ideas+drafts+loops download last week, and both that "Glitch Is a Glitch" end title theme and his Aqua TV Show Show theme are making me really interested in watching director Trevor Nance's partially animated indie movie An Oversimplification of Her Beauty, which features a score written by FlyLo. Like I once said in one of my posts for Word Is Bond, I love it when the worlds of film or TV score music and hip-hop collide. FlyLo, whose Adult Swim bumper music is full of 8-bit bloops, came up with the perfect glitchy 8-bit closing theme for "A Glitch Is a Glitch," which has guest director David OReilly, the Irish animator behind 2010's "The External World," pitting Finn and Jake against Ice King and a computer virus the old man's using to delete everyone from Ooo so that he has the whole land to just himself and Princess Bubblegum, the teenage Candy Kingdom ruler he's continually--and creepily--spitting game at.

"The External World" was an inspired work of absurdist and very adult 3-D animation, and some of that short's random, TV-MA-rated strangeness seeped into "A Glitch Is a Glitch," particularly when PB wards off Ice King's advances by making out with her hand, one of several masturbation jokes the Frederator animators have somehow slipped past Cartoon Network's Standards and Practices department. I think someone at Frederator has a photo of a Cartoon Network censor guy with a sheep.

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