Gator - Original MGM Motion Picture Soundtrack Soundtrack Review
Fabulously Bondian cover artwork (please note that Intrada's CD packaging actually removes the bikini top from Lauren Hutton that is present on all the theatrical posters and DVD covers!) proclaims the arrival of Burt Reynolds in his popular 70's role of “Gator” McKlusky, the swamp-land moonshiner with a penchant for sticking it to the man and taking off in high-speed chases throughout the bayous. The sequel to 1973's White Lightning (directed by Joseph Sargent), this return to the type of redneck-cavalier role that Reynolds simply excelled in, was tonally different from the more streamlined thriller that came before. With the star taking on the directorial mantel as well, it felt more assured, more personalised and a lot more relaxed. For one thing, Reynolds now seemed to have genuinely found his niche – that of the loveable rogue, the erstwhile, light-hearted chancer who would never take things too seriously, the “bit of rough” from the sticks who loved his cars, his kicks and his women. Reynolds would make forays into darker territory in the next decade, with Stick and the great Sharky's Machine, perhaps even Rent-a-Cop and Malone, but he would never quite shake off that “wrong-side-of-the-tracks” affability and axle-grease charm that he came to typify in his brand of yokel antidote to the nihilistic, corruption-rife and downbeat 70's.
This was the decade that seemed to fall in love with those hillbilly bumpkins, wasn't it? The dark side of such a lazy, fly-bitten way of life was very keenly observed and dissected in Deliverance, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes and their grisly in-bred kin. But there was also the semi-comical, hi-jinx loving community that snuck around the law and drawled their way into their own cultural offshoot of liquor-swilling, anti-authoritarian daredevilry. The Dukes Of Hazard, Hooper, Smokey And The Bandit, The Cannonball Run (which was heavily populated by such characters) and even James Bond, himself, would sample the hot 'n' hazy delights of the locale in Live And Let Die and The Man With The Golden Gun (well, okay, this one just took the irascible Sheriff J.W. Pepper out of that locale and off on a far eastern vacation, but the connection was well and truly made). Even Moonraker utilised a speedboat chase that could easily have hailed from moonshine county.
Along with Reynolds and his screenwriter William Norton, composer Charles Bernstein also returned from the first film. Like the star and director, his attitude had changed too. The score for the sequel would deviate from the blue grass Louisiana smooch that had prevailed in White Lightning in that it would take on a more funk-driven and jazzy vibe, though not forgetting tender romance and, best of all, a darker, more psychological edge with regards to some of the tenser moments. Out went the banjo-plucking and jaw-iron whirligig, and in came the seedier, more clandestine milieu of the neon-and-smoke wafting in from the big city club-scene. Both Reynolds and Bernstein agreed on this swing-shift in musical style, and it proved that the star was perfectly able to move with the times and allow his character in the film to evolve alongside himself.
The film's villain, Bama McCall, is played by a familiar face from this backwoods sub-genre, Jerry Reed (who would be Reynolds' sidekick in Smokey And The Bandit). Now given Reed's background of Country and Western singing, it should come as no surprise that he happily supplies the terrific swamp-funk ditty “The Ballad Of Gator McKlusky” that opens up the album, reintroducing us to Reynolds' twinkle-eyed, swamp-based avenger. Larger-than-life and folk-satirical in its lyrics – lyrics, incidentally, that Reed composed and performed – this is eminently catchy and ultra-cool. Earthy and beer-sodden, it is a hick legend vented over a griddle and a camp-fire, the sort of woozy yarn-spinning that instantly has you hooked. Lazy, antagonistic guitars twang and warble behind the kind of enjoyably bumpy beat that makes you think you are riding in the back of a pick-up truck. Although this ballad actually has more in-common with the character of Gator from the previous film, it serves perfectly well here as a reunion and reminder of his notoriety.
Indeed, the vogue-styling for the score is precisely this combination of faux-heroics and whacked-out swamp fugue. It alternates between sweetly intoned and lyrical romance and dark, highly taut periods of slow-measured menace. Oh, and there's the deliberately lackadaisical action rhythms, too. This is the type of score, and film for that matter, that likes to wrong-foot you. The plot concerns the law actually getting their one-time enemy Gator McKlusky to play-ball with them and help take down Reed's much bigger fish, Bama McCall, who is the racist extortion and prostitution racketeer who has Dunston County in his back-pocket. The problem is that Gator and Bama were old childhood buddies – something that the local authorities and the FBI think will enable him to get close to this virtual Godfather, but an element that causes Gator some initial reservations. However, when he discovers the true extent of Bama's nefarious activities, he vows to bring his former friend down once and for all. Though much of the film revolves around petty relationships and verbal sparring and good ol' boy antics, Reynold's breezy return to the character, now replete with the star's trademark moustache, also pitched-in a couple of shock killings that would jar against the lightness of touch and the comic overtones of much of the rest of the film, rocking the viewer and giving Bernstein a chance to throw some weight around.
A beautiful and very 70's love theme makes its lilting, bittersweet presence felt at several junctures throughout the score. First heard in Track 2, this is actually Bernstein's adaptation of Bobby Goldsboro's nostalgic “For A Little While”. This is the romantic cue for the burgeoning relationship between Gator and Lauren Hutton's TV reporter Aggie Maybank. There was always an attractive female reporter in these set-ups, wasn't there? Although they make a great couple, the music actually implies that they are poles-apart and can never remain together, no matter how much they may want to. We get to hear Goldsboro singing his version in Track 8, but Bernstein reinterprets it not only here, but again in Track 5, Leaving Home For A Little While (Changing Love), in which Gator has to say goodbye to his nine-year-old daughter before embarking on his undercover mission, and then again in Track 12, For A Little While (Goodbye Love), in which the redneck and the reporter share some intimacy and dream of something that simply cannot be, and then finally in Track 18, For A Little While (Last Love), in which he and Aggie realise what this ballad has been telling them all along - that they must go their separate ways.
After a suspenseful start to Track 2, Fight In The Night, with high shivering strings and little drum and brass blurts of nervous bombast, we then get that terrifically “fuzzing” shuck 'n' jive beat of the period which boogies-in with confidence. Twists, rattles and shakers are sensuously added to the drum-beat, and we can hear that utterly evocative wacka-wacka-wacka in the background. This then segues directly into the second part of the cue, which moves into a faster, more energetic zone. The beat becomes harder, fatter. The piano joins with the delicious percussion, the tempo increasing as the Afro-Caribbean flavour becomes more dominant. This is simply leagues away from the whistling and the banjos of the first film.
The cool black vibe is carried over into Track 4, Hanna's Club, which takes its time with some seriously swinging jazz-funk. Ace trumpet playing soars across the roof of a piece this resides in background of the film, but bubbles at you right up-front and scratching here on the CD. Interestingly, Bernstein then pivots right around for Track 6, after the second rendition of the love theme, for Cocktails At The Pool, a playfully “tinkly” little piano-bar session that is devoutly up-market and elegant. This sets up the diversity that the film revolves around. We've had the deeper, more rhythmic fun of the black quarter, now Bernstein is moving us into the higher circles of the corrupt Mayor (Dub Taylor) and the bevie of beauties that Bama has lined up for him. There is an air of mock Love Boat nobility about the piece. Light and easy, this lives up to its track title – sweet, dreamy and evocative of hot summer nights … and of a good life that hasn't been earned with any dignity.
Things get a little moodier after this.
Track 7's Laying The Trap is composed of three distinct elements. First, we get the slow, funked-up metronomic beat of echoing electric guitar, thrumming bass and cool, informed drums that could well be scoring Huggy Bear during a reflective wind-down at the end of a busy night ratting on buddies to Starsky & Hutch. A sinuous 3-note twang is the signature phrase. Then the track erupts into a brief flurry of activity, rattling and wah-wahing for a spell. Great stereo effect for ethnic percussion coils around the track too. But listen out for the wonderfully eerie third section of this multifaceted piece, a passage of decidedly creepy tinkling notes from the piano that comes in just after the two-minute mark and remains in spine-tingling mode until the end of the cue. Recognise that skin-prickling little melody? Charles Bernstein would score Wes Craven's original A Nightmare On Elm Street and here, folks, is the template for its haunting main theme. Wow. It is great to hear this piece sandwiched between the afro-funk rhythms and then Bobby Goldsboro's original rendition of “For A Little While” that comes next in Track 8. The much cleaner sound culled from the original ½ inch three-track session masters used for this recording enable these uneasy notes to shimmer and gleam with icy and unnerving clarity.
The jazz-funk fugue swells and struts back into our face in Swamp Chase, whining electric guitar curling and squealing, that irresistible slow beat steering all manner of percussion as, in the film, we hear what is essentially Gator's new main theme. It was a crazy sort of evolution to layer this sort of groove over the Caucasian redneck – but it works superbly. It is brash and cool and yet laid-back enough to epitomise the new, more self-assured Gator McKlusky and, by extension, Burt Reynolds. This cocksure attitude is then shunted aside during the first half of Track 10, Moment Of Truth, in which Gator discovers the true human cost of Bama's little empire when he meets a drug-addicted cheerleader. Poignant strings – violins and harp – combine with a delicately plucked guitar to evoke a fragility and a heartbreaking realisation. The second cue, Ghetto Shakedown, reaches back into the urban jazz-funk roots of hip-hop with its mischievous saxophone, sexed-up guitar and gyrating beat. This element of Gator's score would find itself sampled in later years by rap artists and mark composer Charles Bernstein out as something of a surprising trendsetter.
Remarkably, the next track, Erotica, would then slink back in time and suffuse us in the midst of a customised 60's dope-den. This piece heralds Bama's drugged-up harem and is a crazy, sonorous, tainted trip for sitars, flute and guitars that folds and rolls, floating about in that quasi-exotic hallucinogenic realm of fogged relaxation and trippy dislocation. It is yet another unorthodox flavour in this rich stew of the musically unorthodox.
The original album presentation then bows-out with a gentle reprise of the love theme, the score, as put together by Bernstein still shy of a few tracks that would add further tension, colour and suspense. However, thanks to the access to their vaults that MGM allowed them, Intrada have been able to locate these errant passages that had been hidden away – and now, on this limited edition release, we can enjoy a generous Extras section that adds a number of cues that were not present on the original LP release of the score from United Artists way back in 1976, and haven't been heard outside of the film since. Intrada aren't able to reinsert these back into their proper movie chronological order because of the way that Bernstein had constructed his original album listing for maximum listening pleasure.
This commences with Track 13's brightly percussive variation of Gator's theme in First Meeting. Breezier and more amplified with chimes and woodblock, a zippier guitar, and extra curvature of that essential wah-wah, this provides Gator with his most confident and relaxed statement.
Swanky, swooning parlour elegance is to be found in Track 14's Society Source, a virtual sister-act to the earlier Cocktails At The Pool, but Bernstein's tense textural design and an edgy darkness are served up with the three terrific cues that follow. In Gator Drugged, the effects of a “Mickey Finn” take McKlusky down to the weird mind-tripping clamour of simmering, murmuring synths, eerie echo-plexed notes from the piano and rolling, woozy guitar riffs that ripple and tremor with a dark discord that finely details the not altogether unpleasant, yet decidedly sinister ride that Gator is having once Bama has realised what his old buddy is really up to. The cue then builds to a massive sizzling crescendo of fizzing cymbals and synapse swirling flurries from the harp. This tone of semi-trance-like apprehension and nastiness continues in Alley Scene, in which more of Bama's dirty tricks put the heat on one of Gator's associates, compounding the turning point in the film and our hero's resolve to get the job done, once and for all. The track warbles and staggers to a finale of harsh, angular, jangling piano chords that reverberate and shimmer before being joined by a piercing wail from the guitar.
Bernstein then delivers a marvellous two-fisted finale for the duel between Gator and Bama in Track 17's Gator Makes His Catch. Our boy has caught up with his nemesis and takes his vengeance by smacking several shades of swamp-muck out of him. Accompanied by stark piano chords, twists and shakers, bongos and a repetitive brass figure, the driven fury of the piece is kept at a funky premium. Things gently speed up as Gator gets his revenge, but then satisfyingly climb back down as the pace eventually slackens and individual instruments have their final say.
The last bonus track is the ultimate rendition of For A Little Time (Last Love), sealing the deal on a romance that couldn't and shouldn't last. Well, to be honest, there's no reason why Aggie and Gator (Aggie-gator, eh?) can't stay together, but this is the movies and Burt's a tough guy … and it wouldn't do to soften him up with such emotional baggage. Plus, this left them open for another sequel. But, to date, this has been the last we have seen of the valiant moonshiner-cum-avenging-angel.
Charles Bernstein would go on to score several horror movies during the 80's – powerful and relentless themes for The Entity (a quick sell-out for Intrada already), slow-burn menace for Cujo, lyrical suspense for Deadly Friend and playful stingers aplenty for April Fool's Day. But he will always be the man who created the astoundingly nerve-jangling and now iconic music for Freddy Krueger's first outing, A Nightmare On Elm Street. But it is funny how one of the most memorably blood-chilling phrases from that classic horror film actually came to life here, in this Deep Southern 70's actioner.
Intrada's Special Collection release is limited to 1200 copies worldwide, and comes with a great 12-page illustrated booklet of notes on the film, the score and how this edition came about. It is, naturally, highly recommended.
Full Track Listing
The Original United Artists LP Release
“The Ballad Of Gator McKlusky (composed and performed by Jerry Reed) 3.03
For A Little While (Beach Love) 2.26
Fight In The Night 3.21
Hanna's Club 2.14
Leaving Home For A Little While (Changing Love) 1.40
Cocktails At The Pool 1.59
Laying The Trap 3.37
“For A Little While” (composed and performed by Bobby Goldsboro) 1.49
Swamp Chase 2.44
Moment Of Truth/Ghetto Shakedown 2.55
For A Little While (Goodbye Love) 1.37
Total Original Album Time 30.04
The Extras (Cue not on the Original LP Release)
First Meeting 2.42
Society Source 1.51
Gator Drugged 3.23
Alley Scene 2.07
Gator Makes His Catch 2.15
For A Little While (Last Love) 2.26
Total Extras Time 14.59
Total CD Time 45.13
Charles Bernstein's Gator score is a very pleasing combination of gravelly crooned country ballads, soft Southern lounge and gritty, funk-flavoured 70's action. The composer would go on to bigger and better things, but there is much to enjoy with this limited edition CD from Intrada. It effortlessly relocates you from, what is for me right now, at any rate, the snow, ice and sub-zero temperatures of the UK to the dusky, languid rural boondocks of the sweltering Savannah. The alternating between dark, glacial textures, romantic interlude, and uber-formative hip-hop makes for a dazzlingly diverse soundtrack that shifts moods with surprising ease.
Very much a score of its era – wobbling wah-wah guitars, lots of soft cymbal shimmers, funk percussion, some crooning moments and a jazzy vibe – Gator, nevertheless, jangles with some dark passages of unsettling tension and puts the smirk on your face with those addictive action licks. For me, though, the stand-outs are surely those agitated new dramatic cues strung together in the Extras section, and that amazing little forerunner to the haunting lullaby from “Elm Street” which adds a freakishly eerie little passage to this cocksure adventure score.
After the limited release of the original White Lightning swiftly sold-out, my advice for fans of Charles Bernstein, or for Burt Reynolds is to, ahem, snap Gator up as soon as you can.
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