I ordered this limited edition release from La-La Land some time ago … but it only turned up just recently, way after I had heard that it had actually sold out in a matter of hours. Now, I'd always intended to provide a review for this, but I really hadn't expected the disc to sell out so quickly. Varese Sarabande had, a couple of years ago, released their own copy, and there have been numerous “unofficial” versions of it floating about, the score remaining one of those perennial favourites that just always seemed to be around. So I kind of thought, erroneously as it turned out, that this edition would be available for a little while. Anyway, the score is an action-classic that I recommend wholeheartedly … so seek it out by fair means or foul – because “somewhere, somehow, someone's gonna pay” for it! Although it will probably now be via eBay!
James Horner pumps iron and bullets and spits out a fiery ball of excess adrenaline in a kettle-drum rush of all-out testosteronal blood and fury!
This is Commando! The classic 80’s action score for Arnie’s comic-book assault on Sly Stallone’s domination of the bicep-bulging, artillery-hefting, bodycount-clocking one-man-army genre of all-out ballistic ass-kickery!
Urban devastation is the name of the game as Horner runs with the Austrian Oak to the bombastic tune of a retired Special Forces soldier going on the rampage to reclaim his daughter from a bunch of ignorant, idiotic, irrational and thoroughly irredeemable goons, punks, jundies and guerrillas in Mark L. Lester's punishing, larger-than-life extravaganza. As I say, the score has been out before, and there’s been that slew of bootlegs floating about … but this release from La La Land, as far as I know, is the “real” genuinely full version, complete with The Power Station’s macho end-title song and a couple of alternate takes thrown in for good measure. It is all pulverising stuff that has been composed to bludgeon, orchestrated to pummel and mixed to strafe you with fully automatic and totally unstoppable fury. It is a score that I have always liked more than admired. The sound of the 80's is thickly pumped through it – those soft, fuzzy impact Simmons synth-drums, plentiful electronica and a tight, compact beat that feels reined-in no matter how hard it is meant to come across. But this was how things were back then. Fully orchestral action scores were giving way to a multitude of song-based soundtracks (Top Gun, Risky Business), and the likes of John Barry, with The Living Daylights, Basil Poledouris with Spellbinder, Alan Silvestri with The Delta Force, and especially Jerry Goldsmith, who had always been at the forefront of musical experimentation, with the likes of Runaway, Extreme Prejudice, Rambo: First Blood Part II, Gremlins and Explorers, were happily embracing these new synthesised tastes. Only old stalwarts such as John Williams and Pino Donaggio appeared to be sticking to their symphonic guns. Commando fits into this vogue of new-style action scoring like a combat knife cutting “warm butter.”
I’ve discussed James Horner’s swift rise to genre stardom many times before, but we need to remind ourselves just what material had led him to this A list “go-to” status. Battle Beyond The Stars for Roger Corman was an immediate sign that this young composer could manage larger orchestras and complex writing of big themes with style and dynamism. Brainstorm and Wolfen revealed that he had a tremendous capacity to find the emotion within even the most obscure and left-field of stories, and to be able to buoy such significant spiritual and human dramas with the necessary vigour and verve. But it was Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan that truly brought him to the attention of Hollywood’s prime movers and shakers. His grasp of the larger canvas of galactic adventure and mythology segued so well with his driving action motifs that it seemed he was destined to become the sort of populist fantasy-man who could (and would) rival John Williams. What we didn’t realise was how adept he would be at wreaking musical havoc in the more down-to-earth yet still over-the-top world of honest-to-goodness, pulse-pounding muscle mayhem. Scoring Walter Hill’s urban Western 48 Hrs (see BD and CD reviews) would prove to be the catalyst that would bring him into a wider sphere. Suddenly, this guy revealed that he could maintain heavy character-based underscore whilst driving the onscreen action onwards with an ever-aggressive momentum that was at once exciting and catchy.
And he would win his own commando dagger and beret with this.
The first track we hear doesn't actually feature in the film. As retired Special Forces Col. John Matrix's former team is being assassinated (they sure as hell weren't a patch on their commander, were they?), Horner creates a brief and violent cue containing all the elements that colour the rest of his music for Commando, pretty much summing up the tone for the rest of the score. I'm not sure why it wasn't used – it is appropriately fast, dynamic and highly charged – but it may be because it would detract from the sudden and explosive impact of the main title.
Oh God, that main title. So damn cool as it kicks in …
Arnie’s Col. John Matrix strides dominantly into frame, a tree over one shoulder, the chainsaw that took it down gripped in the other hand. A bigger image of pure primal masculinity you couldn’t ask for. But Horner scores things utterly against the grain. He wallops us over the head with a deep percussive belt of Samson drums and grizzled synth, has a saxophone sizzling dry contempt over the top, a shakuhachi flute wailing an ancient warrior fugue, and then, in his major score leit-motif, the signature element of Commando, he bobbles and cascades us with a rain of rippling steel-drums. We’d heard this before in 48Hrs and Gorky Park, but never so damn catchy and addictive as this. It isn’t what you expect to hear, though. It is playful and tongue-in-cheek. Horner bounces along with a lush, exotic calypso-like rhythm that flies in the face of the deeper, more conventionally percussive chords. The synth-based theme that is borne out of this almost “grinning” main title is the antithesis of the more stridently orchestral action music that composer would normally have come up with, but then this was the cultural turning point for the he-man genre. Up until now, the modern macho action score was the domain of Jerry Goldsmith, and although he would continue to reign supreme until his death a new breed was beginning to barge its way into the field. After the grand symphonics and tribal aggression of Star Trek II Horner was experimenting in more fabulous and populist sounds. It is clear that he saw the sense of the humour in what Lester and Arnie were doing, and he set about creating the musical equivalent to a comic-book – broad, cartoonic, full-on and utterly bereft of subtlety.
He only makes one single gesture to standard convention in the entire score, and that comes with a midway-point table-turning that he affects during this main title which, in my opinion, throws a spanner into the hot-oiled turbo-charged machine. He … he …wait for it … he drops the macho beat to bring in a lovely, lilting string-line melody that denotes Matrix’s love for his daughter! OUCH! Now, I adore this score but I have to admit that I absolutely loathe the way that this “niceness” cuts so immediately and so emphatically into what was, otherwise, a stream of relentlessly driving musical physicality. Of course Horner was having fun. He was taking the proverbial out of the madcap, muscle-straining rage of it all. The imagery in the title sequence suddenly shows us Matrix and Jenny playing with ice-cream, tickling one another when they should be practising karate and, oh sweet Mary Mother of God, feeding Bambi in the high California sunshine. It isn't therefore, surprising, to find that Horner has followed suit and gone all mushy. And, unusually for the composer, he even allows this main title theme, after a vague reprise, to then peter-out into the distance as Matrix and Jenny sit down to snack on some sandwiches. So I have a love-hate relationship with this title track. Thankfully, he doesn't stray from the carnage-strewn path again once we get past this. Mind you, Lester and Arnie and a hundred disposable baddies don't exactly give him the opportunity.
We get that thick, synth-kicked wobble-board col-legno effect to denote the arrival of General Kirkby’s helicopter, that comes prowling up the ravine to drop some bad tidings on the commando-daddy. Horner reprises this for electro-springboard effect in Track 5 and 6, and then Track 20 at the finale of the score proper. It sounds heavy with anger and readiness. “What’s that Army helicopter doing here, Dad?”
After James Olsen’s rather useless top brass mouthpiece fills Matrix in on the unfortunate news, the helicopter then scurries away, leaving two Special Ops bullet-magnets to, ahem, protect him and his daughter. As Arnie’s battle-savvy nose twitches at the scent of approaching evil-doers, Horner suddenly cranks up the tension with a thumbscrew twisting electro line that sears in an undulating drive. With one bodyguard cut to shreds by sneaky machine-gunfire from the trees, Arnie and Jenny retreat into the house with the second trooper who is nursing a wounded arm. Arnie has “got to get my rifle from the shed” and Horner, crispening-up his percussive barrage as Jenny hides under her bed, follows him to his walk-in arsenal out back. The cue turns even more exciting and single-minded as Jenny spies someone in a pair of biker-boots enter her room. A rising synth line goads the nerves, cold, angular horn and flute cries pour callous dread over the set-piece. Arnie, locked and loaded, heads back to the house to the accompaniment of a variety of percussive backup, horns and shakers. A nice brassy fusillade impacts as he reaches Jenny's room and then a twisting, sinister motif of strings and synth slinks icily about as he discovers the slain body of the second member of the protection team. Although Jenny is no longer there, the greasy assassin accomplice we saw earlier is sitting in the chair, waiting to deliver the ultimatum to Matrix.
“Mellow out, man. We can’t talk business with you waving guns in people’s faces.”
Gary Carlos Cervantes' bad boy, Diaz, lays down the deal with Matrix. “Your daughter's safe, Colonel. Whether she stays that way is up to you.” Arnie mulls it over as he spies the getaway vehicles that presumably house Jenny thundering off down the mountain. The time for negotiation is over before it has even begun.
“So if you want your kid back, you’d better cooperate. Right?”
As Arnie ends the conversation rather abruptly with a high-calibre bullet through Daiz’s skull, Horner spins off into Matrix-in-action mode, something that we will hear, pretty much all the way through the film and the score from this point onwards. The shakuhachi flute responds to a crazed saxophone, growling brass and deep metallic percussion provide the muscle as Matrix pushes his sabotaged SUV down the side of the hill, free-wheeling in pursuit of the hijack wagons. The sax shrieks with the strain, and then suddenly we are hurtling in the slipstream of furious electronic rhythms as Matrix halts the convoy … and, inadvertently, places himself in a trap.
After a tranquillising reunion with his former buddy turned vile, child-menacing mercenary, Bennett (Vernon Wells) and a brief mission statement from Dan Hedaya's despicable wanna-be dictator, Arius, Matrix is bustled onto a plane headed for a very Cuban-esque nation that he is tasked with invading as a prelim to Arius' take over. If he doesn't waste the apparently decent el Presidente in power there … Jenny dies.
Taunted by Sully (David Patrick Kelly), who happily waves him off, Matrix boards the plane with his flamboyant chaperone and, in no time at all, breaks the guy’s neck, feigns air-sickness, disturbs a Doberman in the baggage compartment and climbs out onto the front wheel in order to jump off. He clearly didn’t listen to Arius’ rules, did he? Horner provides an exciting and brazen musical backdrop to all this. He’s got the measure of the impossibility of what Arnie is doing, but he’s more than merry about beefing-up the big guy’s exploits with rousing, hard-faced (yet still totally tongue-in-cheek) valour. He brings in the electronic organ, military brass, shakuhachi and spiralling synth runs, and of course, those delirious steel drums.
The following few tracks - 8 to 12 – pound and churn through the same motif of energised synthesiser, warbling kettle-drum and echoing Simmons as Matrix lands in the swamp, runs across the landing strips, gets back inside the terminal and spies Sully making what amounts to a rapist’s moves on off-duty air stewardess Cindy (Rae Dawn Chong). Sussing out a plan of action, the commando pursues them both and, after coercing Cindy into going along with him and tailing Sully into LA’s Galleria (the same shopping mall we saw Arnie tear apart in T2), urges her to bring the weasel over to him. Being a typical woman, Cindy blows the deal and alerts the mall security guards and the quarry, himself, to the fact that “one gigantic muthaf*cker!” is on the loose … and Horner’s sinew-teasing calypso, which has been playing as a virtual muzak throughout all of this, then kicks into overdrive. The rhythm intensifies, the sax wails and the synth-line suddenly speeds up until the steady beat becomes chaotic and frenzied. Matrix takes on the guards, hurling them around like rag-dolls. Cindy saves his life when a mall-cop takes aim at the massive troublemaker. Sully makes a break for it … and, to the sound of a terrific, almost surreal fairground-like clatter of steel-drums, Matrix swings across the mall like a steroidal Errol Flynn, and lands on the roof of the elevator that his prey is hiding in. Horner drives the bass and sizzles the sax with adrenal venom, upping the pace and the percussion in cahoots with Sully’s frantic escape bid. The steel-drums ring out with insistent spite as Matrix bounces off the bonnet of Sully’s car, the beat remaining just as consistent and unbroken as the soldier, who merely gets to his feet and leaps into Cindy’s vehicle to resume the chase with no break in his stride.
The rhythm continues through Track 12, that exhilarated calypso unshakable in its determination. None of this crazy instrumentation should work well together … yet the combination of pounding drums, surging sax and synth and blurting brass compels us to race alongside two hot cars that are, in all honesty, travelling at no more than 25 mph! Without Horner’s embellishment, the sequence would be comical.
“Remember, Sully, when I promised to kill you last?”
“That’s right, Matrix. You did!”
All together now ... “I lied.”
Arnie’s classic assassination of a rather obvious Sully-dummy by dropping it over the edge of a cliff remains unscored. As does the big brawl between Matrix and ex-Green Beret henchman Cook (Bill Duke, who would go on to serve alongside Arnie in Predator) in the motel room in which he was supposed to meet Sully. Then, after an scene-setter revealing Arius' island fortress, we get some mysterious, doom-laden chimes and repeating string figures for some jockeying shots of Jenny being locked away and, back in LA, Matrix spilling his guts out to Cindy in Track 13 (“All that matters to me now is Chenny” he growls in that thick accent), Horner returns with a menacing, slow-anvil suspense-cue in Track 14, as Matrix and Cindy penetrate the LA warehouse in which Arius has, rather preposterously, gathered together tanks and other artillery in preparation for shipping over for his military coup in, um, a little Cessna seabird! This is now a different musical approach, and one that favours slow, deep and resonant dread in a style that would be heard in a much more evolved manner in the awesome extended search sequences of Aliens. Echoing, metal-bashed bass is augmented with synth and a weird, dislocated refrain of the sax riff from the Main Title wanders across the heavy melange into no-man’s land. The musical evocation of mighty hardware and deadly vehicles is brilliantly conveyed, although nothing actually moves or is ever seen in action. This is the slowest and, perhaps, the most atmospheric track that Horner provides for the score. It is also a welcome respite from the driving cacophony that has dominated much of the album, even if the massive bass and anvil elements thud and rebound with just as much energy.
Matrix's shopping-spree in an army surplus store – after “covertly” breaking into it with a bulldozer – is accompanied by deep wedges of militaristic muscle and jangling shakers and chimes. A winding figure denotes the increasing amount of kit he is pilfering, sharp surges of brass hasten him along, and a wacky, almost drunken rendition of the main title theme is spun out from the sax. His capture by the local police and subsequent rocket-aided escape from custody isn't scored. And nor is the sequence when Matrix and Cindy commandeer Arius' sea-plane from San Pedro docks after wasting a few of his ten-a-penny goons. But then Horner is merely taking a breather before gearing-up to join Arnie for the outbreak of World War Three.
One of the standouts has to be the glorious moment when Matrix – the only man who could make a pair of the skimpiest Speedos look cool – makes his beach landing on the island of Val Verde and prepares for all-out war. Horner's cue, heard in Track 16, is brief but triumphant. This is Matrix's curt and aggressive answer to Superman's fanfare. The drums, the brass, the sax and the synth-squall builds up, rising in tempo until the ethnic pipes join in with tropical zeal, wailing and swooning all over the place. Matrix suits-up in combat vest, fatigues and boots and straps on enough weaponry to topple a small country. Horner's super-chunking metal percussion slams home in-tandem to the buckling of a grenade-sling, the tying of boot-laces, the cocking of an assault rifle and the sheathing of a mighty knife – an alarmingly exciting passage of increasing rage that culminates in a glistening coronation of steel-drums and sparkling percussion that peals out across the image of a sun-drenched warrior. You really shouldn't adore such a blatant call-to-arms as much as this – but you just can't help it.
The next track, Matrix Climbs Up Bank, boasts a fabulous swagger that tries to act all covert as the biggest commando in the world attempts to sneak up on Arius' palace. This is a variation on the forceful rhythms heard in Matrix On The Move and Don't Move. Brass packs heat and Horner's anvil is hammered, the resulting clash of this dominant combination would go on to become one of the composer's hallmarks. The pipes hoot and call, swooping through the raw power. Matrix scopes out the defences of the junta, the sax wailing against almost constant barrages of drums and percussion. This is one of my favourite pieces of the score. Just listen to the flurry of Samson-bashing as, in the film, Arnie's camo-painted face peeps out from behind a tree, his eyes narrowed into slits of the purest combat rage. The sound suddenly increases in volume as the drums pound away. I would have said that this is possibly an error in the mix, but this is precisely how it sounds in the film, and upon every version of the score that I have heard. So, if it is a mistake, it was present during the recording. And even if it is … it sounds great, a real deep, raucous kick-in-the-guts that positively grinds its way at you. If you listen closely, you will hear a little reminder from Horner's work on Wolfen being given a militaristic makeover, as well as a neat precursor to Aliens. The track then moves into a second phase as, at one end of the compound, Arius receives the call to tell him that Matrix was not on the plane and orders Bennett to “kill the girl,” and, at the other, Matrix begins his assault. This is almost like a leisurely boogie through wholesale slaughter. Matrix takes out the perimeter guards and sets his mines, the music much less forceful than before, the sax enjoying more free time and the bamboo shakuhachi creating a tribal counterpoint to the sleazy brass. This seems to denote the sheer ease and “pleasure” with which Matrix plies his trade.
The first part of the next track, Soldier Gets Pitchfork, clearly speaks for itself, doesn't it? Having been blown through the air by a grenade – and check out the green-covered springboards launching his enemies into shrapnel-blasted cartwheels – Matrix drags his bloodied body into Arius' garden shed to assess his injuries in private. But the jundies have other ideas and turn the hut into Swiss Cheese with automatic fire. The first poor sod to investigate the remains gets skewered as Matrix, who has availed himself A-Team-style with whatever improvised weaponry he can find, launches a counter-attack with pitchfork, axe, machete and a couple of circular-saw blades. All the while, Horner acquits himself with an ascending/descending synth line that twists, coils and tightens into a rapid-fire, robotic pulse like a demented Morse Code. This is coupled with the insistent Simmons drums that buzz and thump, whirring continuously alongside Matrix as he snatches up an M60 and resumes his decimation of Arius' forces. In the second cue of the track, Matrix Runs Up Steps, the commando takes the fight straight into the rebel general's palace, chewing-up anybody who gets in his way. Meanwhile, Bennett is stalking Jenny, who has shown some skills of her own and escaped from the room she was locked in. As bodies continue to tumble up above, the traitor pursues her into the generator levels beneath the compound. The twisting, turning rhythm of the synth and Simmons rattles over the top of all this.
Portions of the final maelstrom of destruction are unscored, with Horner stepping aside to allow the music of mayhem – gunfire, explosions and screams – to fill in. But he suddenly gets back on-point when Matrix catches up with Arius and shotguns him out of a window and over the edge of a balcony in Track 19, filling the beginning of the cue with clamouring steel-drums and the Simmons in a scintillating cascade of euphoric metallica. The track then delves back into twisting synth-lines, reverberating bass and percussion, a wailing rendition of the main saxophone phrase, and superb echoplexed col legno suspense as Matrix hears Jenny’s plaintiff subterranean cry of “Daddy!” and homes-in on it. Of course, Bennett gets there first, and the two enemies go head-to-head in a climactic duel that is as hysterically funny as it is exciting. “You're getting old, John!” teases the puny, flaccid-muscled Bennett as the man-mountain of perfect rippling health advances upon him. Clearly, Bennett has not looked into a mirror for a while. Brass and saxophone circle one another, with the shakuhachi flute playing referee to a bout that can only have one clear victor. Sadly, Vernon Wells' insane yowls and screeches are not heard here – you've gotta love this moustachioed dumb-ass though, he's about as intimidating as Freddie Mercury in his string-vest and leather jeans – and the final action cue sort of drifts away into lingering underscore as poor Bennett gets to “let off some steam” the hard way.
The score then climaxes with the col legno of the percussive synth bed, the cue acting as a stunned summation of Matrix’s leviathan massacre. “Leave anything for us?” enquires Kirkby as he lands on the beach after all the action has ended. “Just bodies …” replies the Colonel as he carries Jenny off towards the sea-plane, and a waiting Cindy ... and, just presumably, that full retirement.
The album then provides us, for the first time, the end titles 80’s rock ballad We Fight For Love by The Power Station. Once fronted by Robert Palmer but still backed by two of Duran Duran’s leading lights in the Taylors, guitarists John and Andy, Michael Des Barres assumes the lead vocals in a powerhouse, heavy-duty rock-ballad that goes some way to addressing the actual narrative of the film and Arnie’s character which, in something of a rarity, actually ties a song in with the film it supports.
The album then presents us with alternate tracks. One for Soldier Gets Pitchfork which features only subtle differences, and two for Don't Disturb My Friend (heard in its full and final guise in Track 7). These last two offer significant alterations to that heard in the finished score. After some slightly muffled instructions from Horner, himself, the first take omits the steel drums and the electronic organ and even modifies the rhythm somewhat. The second goes on for longer and boasts another layer of synth and a more driven, determined and much, much faster attack on the Simmons drums. All three are very welcome bonus cues although I cannot imagine how Horner thought that the second take on Don't Disturb My Friend was ever going to fit the film, unless the footage had sped up to a ridiculously comical degree.
Horner would go on to score Red Heat for Arnie and director Walter Hill, once again using the bizarre combination of steel-drums, synth, grinding percussion and Simmons drums … but also bringing to the table a fantastic Russian theme of tortured but defiant pride.
La-La Land's release comes with an awesomely illustrated 24-page booklet of notes covering the film and Horner's contribution to its success from Jeff Bond.
All in all, this is a mighty package … as befits Arnie's Commando.
FULL TRACK LISTING:
1 The Trashmen / The Agency :46
2 Main Title 3.45
3 The Helicopter Arrives :55
4 Run to the Shed and Chase 2.38
5 Matrix Captured/Jenny Tied Up 1.50
6 Into the Plane :53
7 Don’t Disturb My Friend 3.36
8 Matrix Hits the Swamp 1.14
9 Matrix Walks in the Terminal :27
10 Matrix on the Move :48
11 Don’t Move 6:30
12 Sully Starts to Run 4.33
13 Drive Away From Pier 3.41
14 Matrix Breaks Lock 2.13
15 Matrix Jumps to Floor 1.40
16 Cut to Val Verde 1.23
17 Matrix Climbs Up Bank 3.15
18 Soldier Gets Pitchfork/Matrix Runs Up Steps 3.47
19 Arius Crashes Through Window 3.20
20 Matrix Approaches General :56
21 Someday, Somehow, Someone’s Gotta Pay 4.36
Performed by The Power Station
22 Soldier Gets Pitchfork (alternate) 1.29
23 Don’t Disturb My Friend (alternate) 3.21
24 Don’t Disturb My Friend (alternate mix) 3.56
Total Time: 61:48
“Come on, Bennett … let's party!”
And that's exactly what this CD enables you to do. So strap on some ballistic hardware, don some kevlar bling and slap on the camouflage face-paint. We're gonna paint the town red in a calypso of carnage!
James Horner kicked his slippers off with Commando and replaced them with reggae-coloured combat boots. He wrapped the sweating, camo-painted bulk of Arnie up with a bullet-proof coat of musical testosterone, but he wizened-up to the absurdity of what director Mark L. Lester was doing and liberally laced his score with infectious, unabashed fun. With irresistible synths and Simmons drums, meaty brass and a furious variety of percussion at his disposal, Horner wages just as much war as Arnie does, his music a non-stop assault on the senses. Uniquely driven, unusually orchestrated and spectacularly macho from the get-go, this is prime workout material, and a wonderfully nostalgic trip down Steroidal Lane. On the downside, it is profoundly repetitive and Horner does botch the otherwise awesome Main Title with that horrible little nicey-nicey passage of father/daughter bonding.
But, overall, this is gloriously exciting stuff.
This release is limited to 3000 copies worldwide and, to my knowledge, these were all snapped up quicker than it took Arnie so sever that bloke's arm with a machete, but that does not mean that there aren't still copies of it gadding-about. Believe me, for those who haven't been lucky enough to pick one up – in any edition – it is well worth tracking down. This is vintage James Horner, and even if this score doesn't seem to bear much immediate relation to his many award-winning works in later years, you can clearly hear the evolution of phrases heard in Star Trek II, Wolfen, Brainstorm, and even Krull, and also recognise elements that would go on to stunning effect in Aliens and Titanic. For fans of the composer and of Arnie, this simply demands to be in your collection.
So let off some steam with Horner's furious and exultant score for Commando.
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