Monday, May 18, 2015

Varèse Sarabande's "LP to CD" series is a bonkers idea only hoarders would sign up for

April Fool's Day is also the title of the best Weird Al parody of U2 that Weird Al recorded in a parallel universe that's more fun than our drab-ass universe.
The AFOS blog has a schedule each week: just two (or sometimes three) new posts, and one of the posts is a Throwback Thursday post where I draw from a desk cabinet a movie ticket I saved and discuss at length the movie on the ticket (occasionally, if I draw a ticket for a movie I won't find to be stimulating to write about--like, say, Transformers: The Torture of Hearing Shia LaBeouf Scream "No!" 50,000 Times--I'll change it to a different movie). I chose a two-per-week schedule so that this blog has something new every week and it doesn't wind up looking like tumbleweed drifting across a vacant lot, which is what has happened to so many blogs I used to enjoy reading before their authors simply lost interest and abandoned them without even saying a proper "I'm Swayze."

Finding a topic to write about other than the Throwback Thursday movie-of-the-week has sometimes been difficult. In the last couple of weeks, I've wanted to write about how I wish the late, great movie trailer announcer Percy Rodrigues were alive to read promo copy for Penny Dreadful or trailer copy for 2011's Attack the Block because they look so much like things Rodrigues--whose favorite trailer campaign of mine has got to be the one he recorded for 1995's Tales from the Hood--would have been hired to read copy for when he was alive.

But the problem I've been having with that topic is that it's difficult to write about in a structure that's not a listicle. Earlier this year, I vowed to never write a listicle again because 1) listicles at their worst are such lazy and vapid writing; 2) every time I see an article hed that consists of a numeral followed by a plural noun followed by "That You Didn't Know Were This," I feel like punching a millennial hed writer in the face; and 3) if your film music blog or pop culture site has posted tons of listicles where the hed starts with a numeral, and it continues to post such lists, your blog or site sucks.

So while I was experiencing starts and stops with the topic of trailer campaigns Rodrigues would have been perfect for, I saw "Varèse Sarabande Launches LP to CD Series" in my e-mail. Then I said, "Interesting. I've found my non-TBT topic for next week." And good thing it's the kind of topic that can't be shaped into a fucking listicle.

"Varèse Sarabande has delved deep into our vinyl soundtrack vaults to locate fan favorites and hard-to-find gems that have never been released on CD to date!," announced the inkblot-logoed soundtrack label on its site last week. "The LP to CD subscription series will feature one CD soundtrack per month culled from Varèse Sarabande's archives and available only to subscribers."

The label plans to debut 12 long-out-of-print score albums in CD form instead of in mp3 download form. Subscribers who pre-order for "LP to CD" membership ($10 per month, plus shipping) before June 14 will receive from Varèse (pronounced "vuh-rez") a CD carrying case in the shape of a vintage vinyl carrying case. After June 14, people can join the subscription series on a month-to-month basis. The first out-of-print score in the "LP to CD" series is Charles Bernstein's score to the '80s horror comedy April Fool's Day.

Eh, I've never seen April Fool's Day (even though I kind of remember the tongue-in-cheek April Fool's Day TV spots from when I was a kid, and judging from those TV spots, it looks like the type of horror comedy I'd be into renting these days), so the score doesn't interest me. But bringing 12 score albums from Varèse's pre-CD past back into print is both a nice thing for Varèse to do--it's reminiscent of the MOD (manufactured-on-demand) business model Warner Archive has created to give film geeks access to previously unreleased or out-of-print catalog titles from the Warner Bros. and Turner libraries--and a subscription series I'd get on board with if I had more money.

Actually, I thought it was a subscription series I'd get on board with--until I found out the other 11 score albums in the series haven't been announced by Varèse yet. So anyone who subscribes before June 14 won't have any idea what they'll be filling their red carrying cases with after the April Fool's Day score and maybe whatever score is scheduled to follow that one, which I think is crazy. To be put into that kind of guessing game is the kind of thing I wouldn't sign up for. A guessing game might be great for a pie-of-the-month club, but it wouldn't be so great for a score-album-of-the-month club. To give other score album collectors an approximate idea of what else Varèse might reissue for the "LP to CD" series, someone on the Film Score Monthly message board posted a list of Varèse titles that never made the jump to CD. There are more than 12.

The Ewok movies? Why am I not surprised no one was exactly clamoring for them?

Yeah, that's not exactly an enticing list. Meanwhile, the world's only two or three fans of Blame It on Rio or From the Hip just creamed their pants.

I've always liked Varèse, and I put selections from tons of Varèse albums into rotation on AFOS all the time. My favorite release of theirs has to be the six-CD 2010 release of both Alex North's 1960 Spartacus score and the various cover versions of North's Spartacus love theme, a tune that became a jazz standard and one of the late Nujabes' favorite things to sample. The handsomely packaged, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink Spartacus box set is a release that, on paper, sounds like the old "We've put 50 songs on 50 CDs!" joke from the "Greatest Hits" game on Whose Line Is It Anyway?, but it's no joke, and that box set is the impressive pinnacle of Varèse's work in both giving beloved film and TV scores proper releases and honoring the art of film and TV scoring.

But despite my liking of Varèse, I've never been a Varèse soundtrack release completist like the completists who would subscribe to the "LP to CD" series. Who out there makes it their life's mission to collect every single release put out by a record label--rather than a musician or band they might love--even if an album made by the label contains a score from a movie or TV show they're not familiar with and even if a score released by that label was written by a composer they never liked? That's like if a hip-hop head bought every single release from Def Jam just because it's from Def Jam, including everything from the failed Roc La Familia imprint and even Kingdom Come, which Jay Z considers his worst album. It's just so bizarre. I call it bizarre, while A&E has a different word for it. Maybe you've heard of that word. The word is Hoarders.

Paul Chihara scored The Haunting Passion, an '80s TV-movie that caused me to have a crush on Jane Seymour, even though the movie's kind of cheesy--especially Chihara's softcore porn-ish score--and it's basically about Jane Seymour awkwardly fucking a ghost.
Paul Chihara

Only one out-of-print Varèse score on the above list interests me. It's Paul Chihara's score to 1981's Prince of the City, one of my favorite Sidney Lumet films and a film that inspired Dick Wolf to create for Prince of the City star Jerry Orbach a wiseass Law & Order detective character slightly modeled after Orbach's corrupt and racist NYPD narc character (hey, Law & Order afternoon marathon-obsessed moms and stand-up comics who don't work during the day, remember when Briscoe was introduced as the formerly crooked, estranged-from-his-grown-up-daughters and twice-divorced antithesis of Paul Sorvino's fatherly and happily married Sgt. Cerreta?). Prince of the City is also a film that must have influenced Shawn Ryan in his TV work. The Shield, The Chicago Code and even the non-police-related Last Resort owe a lot to Prince of the City, which the late Lumet signed up for after Brian De Palma left the film (man, take me to the parallel universe where De Palma made Prince of the City!) because Lumet wanted to tackle a portrayal of the police that was more complex and morally ambiguous than his own 1973 smash hit Serpico. Prince of the City is the kind of audacious and grown-up cinematic fare that, like I said in my discussion of Horrible Bosses, major Hollywood studios used to be good at crafting in the days before the stink of PG-13, and it's the kind of fare that's found only as original shows on cable TV or streaming services these days.

The melancholy Prince of the City score--which was recorded in Paris with Jules and Jim and Contempt composer Georges Delerue as conductor instead of Chihara, due to an American musicians' strike at the time--is an important score to me and a noteworthy achievement because it's a solid score written by one of the few Asian American composers in the still-not-so-diverse world of film and TV music. Chihara, who collaborated frequently with Lumet and Farewell to Manzanar director John Korty, may not be as active in that world anymore (his last significant screen scoring credit was additional music for the John Turturro-directed 2005 musical Romance & Cigarettes), but the Japanese American composer remains active in the classical music world.

Outside the context of the film, the Prince of the City score isn't exactly a rollicking good time like, say, "I Don't Know" by Slum Village or "A Roller Skating Jam Named 'Saturdays'" by De La Soul, but it nicely reflects the isolation and angst of Treat Williams' character Daniel Ciello, a corrupt-cop-turned-whistleblower-taking-down-other-corrupt-cops. "Conceptually, Danny Ciello was to be treated always as one instrument: saxophone. Over the body of the picture, his sound was to become more and more isolated, until finally three notes of the original theme, played on sax, was all that remained of the music," wrote Lumet in his 1995 book Making Movies.

Chihara's score is an effective score from a film that's still underappreciated, and if Varèse's "LP to CD" series does rescue the Prince of the City score from the out-of-print doldrums, then we're getting somewhere. For now though, the series' "hey there, completists, for $10 a month, you won't know what you're getting!" concept just gives me bad--not to mention Hoarders-y, crazy cat lady-ish--vibes.

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