Gray Lady Down - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack Soundtrack Review

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by Chris McEneany Nov 22, 2009 at 12:00 AM

  • Movies review

    Gray Lady Down - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack Soundtrack Review

    Before we discuss the score itself, folks, just cast your eyes over that gorgeous cover artwork. How cool is that? Intrada's choice of incorporating a film's original poster artwork in such lush quality means that not only does the disc sound great, but it sure looks great, too.

    Gray Lady Down was one of those high-concept 70's action yarns - Earthquake, Rollercoaster, The Towering Inferno and Airport - but, this time out, its pitch was to collide a military atmosphere of steadfast resilience and derring-do with the immensely popular disaster movie ethos of heroic sacrifice and time fast running out for the ubiquitous all-star cast. This, of course, was once the trademark of Saturday night TV. When a freak collision with a merchant freighter looming out of the fog sends the US nuclear submarine Neptune, commanded by granite-jawed Hollywood demigod, Charlton Heston, as Captain Paul Blanchard, downwards to crash upon a perilous shelf a thousand feet below, the Navy must use all of their skills, technology and stoic resolve to mount a rescue operation to save those trapped on-board. With water having breached several areas of the vessel and sailors drowning, the outlook for the survivors is not good - especially as the sub could shift position at any moment and plunge right over the edge and down into the unsalvageable abyss. Lucky then that David Carradine's bushy-bearded Captain Gates is on-hand with his Deep Sea Rescue Vehicle, the prototype S.N.A.R.K. And, with help from best buddy Ned Beatty, brawny Christopher Reeve (only months away from “super”-stardom as the last son of Krypton, which he'd already filmed with Beatty) and a pre-toupee Stacy Keach as the overseeing Captain Bennett, he will undergo the perilous mission to reach the doomed sub.

    With Jerry Fielding drafted-in for scoring duty, the film would mark the composer's only truly militaristic and gung-ho approach to writing. To this end he would incorporate some exciting set-piece mayhem and a thickly wonderful martial main theme. Although Fielding had worked on some seminal genre movies, such as the Westerns Chato's Land, Lawman, The Outlaw Josie Wales and, of course, The Wild Bunch, as well as the thrillers like Scorpio, The Enforcer, The Killer Elite and The Mechanic, he was still not quite the man you would expect to find at the musical helm of movie depicting US military might, hairsbreadth escapes, palm-sweating tension and jingoistic determination in the face of calamity. Yet what he delivered was an extraordinary about-face of motifs and phraseology that still clung tenaciously to his own inimitable style but garnered new colours, textures and a prevailing mood of absolute high tension. Gone were the free-wheeling jazzy passages that he so loved, replaced, instead, by strong and muscular bass and percussion, aggressive brass clusters and complex strings. He would also bring in a synthesiser to add an unearthly quality and glistening timbre to the score. He'd used them before and certainly knew how to integrate their unique and alien sound into that of the orchestra without drawing too much attention down upon it, and, out of most symphonic composers who brought in electronica during this period, Jerry Fielding was perhaps the most subtle.

    As the terrific liner notes from Nick Redman eloquently detail, this was not a great time for Fielding who, after years of almost insane toiling and strong emotional sacrifice, found himself at a point of absolute burn-out. Unhappy with the industry and now coming to doubt his own place in the grand scheme of film scoring, he then suffered a heart attack that forced him to re-evaluate his midnight-oil, life-and-soul work ethic ... and the lack of appreciation that his efforts often received. Thus, with this now cynical frame of mind dominating his outlook, it is still remarkable that he turned out such magnificent scores in the last couple of years of his life. With The Big Sleep for long-time collaborator, Michael Winner, and Beyond The Poseidon Adventure, as well as Gray Lady Down (the latter two both maritime disaster movies, although with markedly different tonal approaches) rounding out a phenomenal career that is really only now getting the attention it deserves, score-fans can, at least, rejoice in such a rich legacy of music. The Big Sleep has also been released, in its complete form, by Intrada, as a recent Jerry Fielding double-hitter and the pair make a magnificent set.

    With its title culled from the naval code for a downed sub, Gray Lady Down was not exactly a box office smash, but it was a solid thriller that would go on to become one of a select few of submarine pot-boilers that wormed their way into the psyche for tense maritime drama, with or without any actual warfare actually taking place. Wolfgang Petersen's celebrated epic mini-series, Das Boot, would follow a couple of years later and totally re-write the rule-book for claustrophobic, sardine-can suspense and there has been a quite a few since then - Crimson Tide, U-571, Below, K-19 - The Widowmaker etc - and the interesting thing that they all have in common is that their scores all reflect the power and ferocity of the sea to some degree, whilst, quite remarkably, Fielding's music for Gray Lady Down doesn't. Although Redman points out in the notes-booklet that the Main Title theme, which goes on to become a regular motif throughout the score, “bespeaks the ocean's limitless scope and power”, I don't get any sense of the sea whatsoever. Indeed, if I hadn't already seen the film and wasn't able to see the imagery from it in my mind's eye whilst Fielding's score plays, I simply wouldn't guess that it was all taking place beneath the dangerous waves. But don't take that remark as being anything of a criticism of his work here, it is just that most composers would make a conscious effort to depict the roiling, treacherous depths, whilst Fielding assumes total command of the nail-biting sense of helplessness and dread on-board the stricken sub and the desperate attempts to save it by those top-side without the need for constant setting evocation. In many ways, his score could even be that of a deeply psychological thriller, his cues turning the thumb-screws on an ever-darkening situation that wreaks as much emotional havoc as it does the tangible, ever-present weight of the ocean as pressure pops rivets and bulk-heads have to be sealed whilst unlucky souls become trapped behind them. In short, he composes for the situation within and not the environment without and this, in turn, creates a score of magnificent foreboding and edgy paranoia.

    That recurring main theme is an addictive two-note repeat that ticks ominously away amid military snare, little brass flurries and strings that, together, supply the incessant message that whilst the sweat drips from feverish brows, metal shifts inexorably over unyielding rock and that time is not slowing down, there is still a sense of duty and dedication. There is no panic in the motif, rather the steady, almost reassuring assertion of authority and confidence. Fielding even sees fit to place a tiny little salutary voice in there of four-notes that is almost a wink at the “men-on-a-mission” concept. Track 2, First Surface, is when Fielding delivers the mighty Naval statement of hardware, strength and motivation with a massive brass, drum and strings fanfare that peels out like a call to arms. This is what could be termed as being the secondary theme, and there is something familiar about it that I will get to later. But, almost as immediately as he has made this emphatic statement, Fielding drops the jingoism and counters its dominance with some sustained strings of pre-disaster tension and a series of odd little phrases for bassoon, flute and clarinet. Just glimmers of unease that also occasion a brief percussive momentum. There is also something that sounds, well, “British” about this score. Perhaps because of the war-time submarine dramas, such as Above Us The Waves and We Dive At Dawn, Fielding finds some kind of spiritual ancestry for his music. The fierce brass squalls and the sudden fanfares have a surprisingly closer-reined aptitude for the claustrophobia, something that the more usual American type of score would eschew in favour of big, bold machismo and brave, set-piece leit motifs, such as Michel Legrand's Ice Station Zebra. It is also worth mentioning that, although recorded at Universal City in 1977, this score features a very similar sound to that which he recorded in London for Michael Winner's The Big Sleep the following year. Fans of the composer will no doubt be aware of how much he loved working in England and of the many successful scores that stemmed from his time here, particularly working with recording engineer, Richard Lewzey. Although, having said that, there is a distinct irony at work here - The Big Sleep and its London-recorded brethren benefited from large orchestras and wider soundstages to effect a richer, deeper and more detailed voice for the music, whilst the Hollywood recordings tended to have smaller ensembles and were often closer-miked, drawing-in much of the musical clout and breadth ... yet Gray Lady Down still sounds very British to me.

    Steering back on course, however, we have Track 3's Collision, which is a tense cue that rolls in the suspense of the disaster as it unfolds for the Neptune. Longer than most of the tracks in the score, this commences with sustained glacial tension for strings, a stretched line of searing anxiety that gradually, almost imperceptibly alters pitch until brass punches through in a series of threatening bludgeons. Then, after some typical sawing from aggressive violins and celli, we shudder under the assault of deep brass clusters and rolling percussion over cymbals and a synthesiser, the shattering impact of the collision having wrought about catastrophe. Levelling Off, that follows, gives further icy suspense, the synth and the shivering string-line cutting through the atmosphere like feverish scalpels. But Fielding has the synth and the intricate colours of the woodwinds paint some alien swirling effects that arc through the almost haunted glamour that the music has attained. This spectral quality is weird, unearthly and spine-tingling - it conjures up the pensive, pin-drop ambience of those huddled together and awaiting some awful, impending doom ... which, of course, is exactly what is required, but in Fielding's hands, the effect is not drawn from the expected styles and sounds. His off-kilter orchestration catches you unawares and needles your brain with trepidation.

    Control Room Of The Neptune is tense, yet forlorn and melancholy. Military drums ripple and the kind of string and brass suspense from James Horner's Aliens and even the cold and inhuman refrain from Ennio Morricone's The Thing seems to find their genesis somewhere within. More colour and a bit of tenderness inveigle their way into the next track, Fair Haired Wonder via a lonely flute that serenades us with a Gaelic-infused shanty of soft mourning. But the delightful little tune is then surrounded and escorted away with drums, horn and clarinet. A brief, but thunderous cue follows with Track 7, DSRV, as we encounter Gates' hopeful little deep-water chariot, the Snark. The music here is broad, powerful and flaring with brass and percussion. The strings swirl higher and higher, drums ripple in and brass then cries out across the sea in a forceful clamour of sabre-rattling intensity. One of their boats is down and the US Navy is going to stop at nothing to get her back. More angry than heroic, the cue is fast and raucous.

    Track 8, Leaky Hatch, is yet more wonderful suspense. Stark, individual notes from a piano echo with crystal clarity, coming to form a sort of conjunction between the blips from a sonar and the drips from a beached steel plate. There is a harp at play in here, too, and the synth acts delicately in the background, somehow cushioning and stretching out those deadly notes. This suspense is expertly carried-over into Visual Inspection Of Hatch. Lots of shivering strings from violins, celli and viola rattle the nerves, but listen to the tuba and the synth and then the xylophone lend some unnerving tendrils to the rising discord from the brass section. This is excellently wrangled and clearly orchestrated to set the pulse pounding. Track 10, Snark Lowered For Mission #1, brings back the main theme's time-clock pace. Drums sound-off in the distance, and the brass-fed two-note statement dives deep. The following piece, Snark Lowered For Mission #2 is different again, releasing the two-note motif and sluicing through murky waters against a rattling phrase from the drums, even more distant and lower prioritised than before. There is no sense of danger, yet, but the clear heroism of Carradine's character isn't brought to the fore either. This is Fielding just plodding along, taking us through an alien world. Like I said earlier, there is no definite “sea-going” sound, as such, but the cue still removes us from our cosy armchair and deposits us somewhere decidedly other.

    Track 12 is the second longest composition on the album. This piece is unified by the main theme ploughing steadily through it, with little military signatures dotted about via drums and brass, but the main emphasis is on strange vignettes of unusual sounds and instrumentation. Quivering strings, the chime of a triangle, warbles and floating ululations from the synth - never too overt, just subtle background colours - and perhaps a vague hint of etherealness from the harp keep the track buoyant with mystery and tense, although there is still a note of hopefulness about the endeavour. The cavalry is on the way, guys, so hang tight. But things, of course, are not going to be all that simple, are they? Another double-act follows with Zeroing In On Sub #1 and #2, tracks 13 and 14. Clanging percussion, backed with brass and some jangling notes on the piano jar the music as the full extent of the Neptune's predicament presents itself to the would-be rescuers and, in a great and unexpected turn, an eerie tribal patois picks-up, with drums and tom-toms embedded within it, creating a weirdly lilting juxtaposition. Ethnic bells and echo-sticks also appear, the track becoming quite sinister and almost voodoo-inspired. Well, you'd never of thought of that in a sunken-sub movie, would you? Track 14, the second and far shorter part of this sequence, carries this exotic flavour onwards, adding some wild synth-formed loops and wobbles to the mix.

    One of the most pivotal section in the film, and the score comes next, when Heston's staunch Captain is forced to watch as his friend, played by Ronny (Total Recall) Cox drowns behind the window in a sealed hatch. Screeching strings, dissonant drumming, a sustained note of keen foreboding and vague echoes from the synth underscore the dreadful moment as the sea claims Cox's Commander Samuelson, and a section of deep, dark dread rises to a crescendo of rage-filled agony as Heston's Blanchard breaks down in his quarters after the incident. The whole cue is one of paralysing horror and pain. Fielding sees to it that the strings sizzle with unendurable grief and a strange impression of almost taunting us about the dire situation that is unfolding. But, to combat this, the main theme returns in Track 16, They Set The Charges, as a tight plan takes shape and the martial drums dig away in the underscore, whilst piano and woodwinds double-tap one-another in the suspense of the painstaking effort to avert further disaster. Listen to the pure 70's synth slide that settles over the final stretch of the cue. This is Lalo Schifrin and Barry DeVorzon rolled into one, Jerry Fielding taking what had been a staple of urban thriller scoring from Dirty Harry to The Warriors and taking it under the waves with him.

    Track 17, Count Down, brings in some slight humanity to the score with a little tenderness from the strings and the horns. This is vintage Fielding and about as sympathetic as we get. The cue is still icy, forlorn and bleak, but tiny little phrases here and there, minute harmonies amidst the steady wall of dread, amplify the human cost that is at stake. It is funny how Fielding can elicit such emotional content without ever actually going down the rich melodic route that, say, James Horner, John Williams or Jerry Goldsmith would have done. Perhaps it is because of Fielding's innate cynicism with the world and his grasp of the realism of the scenarios he is composing for - from The Wild Bunch onwards, he was rarely one to agree with “happy endings” - that such small instances of a warmer touch speak volumes . By contrast, The Launch, is tense, quivering and agitated as massive swirls of percussion and scything strings rise ahead of brass stabbings. The second half of the cue delivers some intricate writing for woodwinds as success seems to be within reach, the tone shifting from melancholy to optimism. A brief fanfare is allowed to enter into the fray before the track softens. But, to coin a very apt phrase - they're not out of the water yet. Track 19, First Rescue, hammers out a curious statement of the secondary theme, one that capitalises on the Ukrainian Christmas choral composition “Carol of the Bells”. Now, we've heard this motif several times already, but here, topped with high gleaming chimes, the tune really stands out and makes a grand statement once its military cadence has been dropped. Quite why Fielding opted to quote this is up for question. Certainly Nick Redman's notes make no reference to it, and it remains a curious, though beautiful addition to the score.

    More humanity, this time very poignantly rendered with shimmering strings , glistening chimes from the triangle and acutely played violin is encountered in Track 20, Gates' Sacrifice. With Carradine's selfless act of ill-fated courage to spur him on, Fielding developing the “Carol of the Bells” with simple, plaintiff, yet searing sorrow and stark tragedy. Once again, even in his tenderest moments, there is a tinge of coldness that is all the more remarkable in that it still tugs at the heart. He did this most majestically in The Wild Bunch, when Robert Ryan reaches down to take the unused six-shooter from the holster of a bullet-riddled William Holden after the bloodbath at Mapache's stronghold, and it is one of the greatest, and briefest, musical depictions of noble heartbreak that I have ever heard. This isn't on a par with that, but it still shows a real degree of empathy that Fielding felt for the Carradine character - something that is remarked upon in the notes from Nick Redman and even in a quote from the composer, himself. However, what makes this track so special is that the first half is scored just like a really malevolent 70's psycho thriller, something in the deeply macabre vein of Black Christmas or The Toolbox Murders, the synth adding layers of vicious pain and terror. It is brilliant how Fielding is able to mesh the two ingredients together and Track 20 becomes one of the score's best compositions.

    The final track, the End Credits, offers a much more restrained variation of the “Carol of the Bells” theme that softly plays before developing into the fuller, more robust and now familiar version. There is a definite Christmassy feel to the theme, yet this has been modified to symbolise hope and charity, now coming to epitomise the selfless sacrifice that Captain Gates has made to save his fellow sailors and, as such, it fits the film perfectly.

    Fielding's later score to Beyond The Poseidon Adventure, for Irwin Allen's misjudged sequel to Ronald Neame's 1972 original The Poseidon Adventure, is actually much better than this one, far more exciting and full of stronger, more melodic themes and more barnstorming action. It is certainly the best thing about what turned out to be an exceptionally poor movie. But Gray Lady Down is still gripping stuff and a great album to listen to for an experience that alternates fanfare-led heroism with deeply unsettling tension and skin-prickling suspense. For this presentation, album producer Douglass Fake went back to the original ½ inch i.p.s 3-track tapes, which were found to be in pristine condition. In the booklet notes he describes the sound configuration that Fielding utilised, which is a little unusual for conventional stereo mixing (the film was released in mono), but was somewhat customary for the composer's precise orchestration. The resulting quality of this premier CD release of the complete score (there is even some slight material here that was dropped from the final film) is crisp and solid, with an agreeable bass punch and nice stereo spread. The score plays in film chronology, with some smaller cues flowing seamlessly together. Limited to 2000 copies worldwide, this one is sure to sink from sight soon, so I would urge Fielding fans to “Dive! Dive! Dive!” for it with haste.

    Full Track Listing

    1. Gray Lady Down (Main Title) 1:53

    2. First Surface 1:47

    3. The Collision 3:08

    4. Leveling Off 2:49

    5. Control Room Of Neptune 1:23

    6. Fair Haired Wonder 1:07

    7. Dsrv 0:56

    8. Leaky Hatch 0:58

    9. Visual Inspection Of Hatch 2:31

    10. Snark Lowered For Mission - #1 1:24

    11. Snark Lowered For Mission - #2 1:21

    12. Finding The Sunk Sub 4:05

    13. Zeroing In On The Sub - #1 2:12

    14. Zeroing In On The Sub - #2 0:47

    15. Dave Dies/Blanchard Cracks 2:52

    16. They Set The Charge 2:33

    17. Count Down 2:06

    18. The Launch 2:29

    19. First Rescue 2:43

    20. Gate's Sacrifice 4:45

    21. Gray Lady Down (End Credits) 2:31

    Total Time - 46:30


    Another awesome release from Intrada, Gray Lady Down is also an important entry in Jerry Fielding's résumé. His departure from mournful Americana, harsh Western orchestration and jazzed-up character-action marked a confident dive into bold martial statement, hard thrills and a gripping through-narrative that wouldn't exactly become a staple in his repertoire but would stand as a great swaggering diversion from his customary cool. The film, itself, is a tight, claustrophobic white-knuckler, although it does suffer from staid direction and a lack of action. Fielding's music is a stunningly wrought accompaniment to the dark descent that Heston's sub makes and the intense psychological traumas that take place within, around and above it.

    A limited release, right alongside a great partner in Fielding's The Big Sleep (which is almost sold out already, so no point reviewing that one), Gray Lady Down is a supreme exercise in cold, calculated thumb-screw turning. Enjoyably visual, marvellously orchestrated and haunting with its metronomic mechanical pulse, this is an excellent release and should not be overlooked by fans of Jerry Fielding.

    Catch it now from the usual suspects of Intrada or FSM, before it sinks without a trace.

    The Rundown





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