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Mysterious Island - The Complete Bernard Herrmann Motion Picture Score Soundtrack Review

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by Chris McEneany Dec 10, 2007

  • Movies review

    1,714

    Mysterious Island - The Complete Bernard Herrmann Motion Picture Score Soundtrack Review
    A terrific new album label called Tribute Film Classics has surfaced. Dedicated to bringing some of the truly outstanding and influential classic film scores from such genius composers as Bernard Herrmann, the creative trio behind the venture, composers and orchestrators William Stromberg, his wife Anna Bonn and John Morgan, who is also a film-score archivist and historian, utilise the magnificent Moscow Symphony Orchestra and go right back to the composer's original notes and manuscripts, reinstating cues that were cut and assembling the orchestra exactly the way that the composer had intended. Over the years there have been many re-issues and re-interpretations of such classic scores, with some very notable new conductors at the helm, such as Joel McNeeley and Bruce Broughton, but TFC brings something new and fresh to the canvas that takes these classic works and brings them to spectacular life with an energy the like of which could only have been experienced during the original recording sessions.

    For their debut, TFC have released two superlative Bernard Herrmann scores, Mysterious Island and Fahrenheit 451, both heard here in their entirety for the first time since the master composer originally put pen to paper. The results are nothing short of revelatory.

    Produced by Charles H. Schneer and propelled by Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion special effects, the 1961 adaptation of the Jules Verne novel, directed by Cy (Zulu) Enfield, was a colourful enough spectacle, telling a variance on the old Robinson Crusoe tale - here, a gaggle of American Civil War soldiers escape a Confederate prison in a hot air balloon, plunge through a terrific storm and end up marooned on the mysterious island of the title, only to be menaced by outsized creatures and pirates and then make the fateful acquaintance of one Captain Nemo before nature sends the time-lost locale to the bottom of the sea. With its typically poor screenplay and wooden performances, it was left to Harryhausen's animated clay and the truly majestic music of Bernard Herrmann to capture the imagination of cinemagoers from that day to this. The relationship between Herrmann and Harryhausen's fantasy films had, of course, gone from strength to strength, with The 3 Worlds Of Gulliver and The Seventh Voyage Of Sinbad already under his belt and the perennial favourite Jason And The Argonauts still to come. There was also Journey To The Centre Of The Earth and The Day The Earth Stood Still residing in his back catalogue too, so he was certainly no novice at conjuring up a world of unbridled imagination, monstrous danger and odyssey-like adventure. Shown the conceptual artwork of the story's environment and the various beastly encounters that would ensue, and kept privy to the film's production every step of the way ensured that the composer had a close affinity with the project all the way through. And, coming to England to score the film - which would be cheaper for Schneer and Columbia Pictures - and using the esteemed London Symphony Orchestra, whom Herrmann had an undying love and adoration for, Mysterious Island was given life and energy in less than two months. The results of his labours have made for one of the most exciting, vivid and richest scores in the genre's history and one whose influence can be felt in the music of Christopher (Hellraiser) Young, Howard (Lord Of The Rings) Shore, Roque Banos, whose score for The Machinist is an undiluted homage to Herrmann, and even more diverse talents such as Joseph (Les Pacte Des Loups) LoDuca, Marco (Hellboy) Beltrami and John Debney.

    As at home exploring the deep psychology of a film's story and its characters - look no further than his slow-burn menace and sliding dementia for Vertigo, Psycho, Cape Fear and Taxi Driver - as he is layering the mood and sense of mystery and adventure, Herrmann's music is dense, melodic and often melancholy. His uncanny knack for climbing within the soul of the narrative and twisting the emotional content to searing depths that are, at best, only hinted at in the script, and quite often in a much more accomplished manner than that portrayed by any of the actors involved, is absolutely peerless. Creating highly textured walls of sound that can roar, engulf, whimper, rouse and move, Herrmann's bold and instantly recognisable touch lifts even the dreariest movie out of the doldrums and into the clouds. Although mainly remembered for his intense collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock - where he was strong enough to step out from beneath the shadow of the larger-than-life director to enable his own unique voice to shine through and energise even things that were already invested with sterling performances, such as North by Northwest - his partnership with the famous Ray Harryhausen would become another of Hollywood's greatest team-ups.

    Here, he manages to exploit the tumultuous maelstrom of the raging sea and an island rent asunder by violent volcanic upheaval. He conjures unearthly, almost supernatural eeriness for the exploration of a strange new world and the discovery of Captain Nemo's Nautilus secretly berthed in a subterranean cave. Action rip-roars its way through numerous strenuously composed pieces that are dizzyingly energetic and kaleidoscopic in tone and structure. The sheer multitude of cues - sixty-one in all - flow together in a magical carpet of spectral design that feels so spellbindingly lush and satisfying that the album, itself, paints pictures that Schneer's film, those stop-motion effects notwithstanding, could never hope to equal. Given the choice between watching the film and listening to the score, I would almost certainly opt for the score every time.

    The mysterious power of the five-cue Clouds sequence, totalling almost five minutes, splendidly evokes the swirling journey of the group as the elements transport them to an uncharted land of adventure. His audacious lift of Rimsky-Korsakov's Flight Of The Bumblebee is devastatingly reworked for the cues involving two love-birds becoming encased in a honeycomb by a giant-sized bee, and the clever manipulations of the title theme, Prelude, as woven throughout the soundtrack, provide a musically strong backbone linking every aspect of the orchestra together, no matter how chaotic or outrageous the score may like to get. Herrmann's complex patterns, that somehow even imbue a fledgling love affair with an air of grim destiny and foreboding, may revel in a powerhouse display of bravura menace and threat but, even in the most gripping passages, still evoke a sense of sweeping romance and emotional colour that few other composers could hope to emulate.

    Complex orchestration keeps the attention riveted with standout cues for The Giant Crab and The Bird. Listen how he achieves the snapping of pincers and the dance-like attack for the Crab, and then a suitably grotesque squall of frenzied instrumentation to signify the somewhat absurd, though no less dangerous assault from the ungainly, eagle-headed Phorohacos that is intending to peck Beth Rogan's Elena to death. Some of his action cues remind us of the driving propulsive rhythms from North By Northwest and his inspired use of horns and trumpets bleed on tremendously from the clangourous rampage of the Cyclops from Seventh Voyage Of Sinbad and would, naturally, foreshadow the tour de force that would be Jason And The Argonauts, for which he would completely jettison the string section altogether and thunder along on bass, percussion and a vast array of brass. Then there is the enormous weight and swirling terror he fashions from bassoons, bass-clarinets, trombones, tuba and timpani for the aggressive underwater sequence of the divers battling the colossal octopus in first Tentacles and then, with almost overbearing density in the extended Fight cue. It is hard to think of a more dynamic composer and Herrmann's vigorous intentions strive to dominate Mysterious Island with a gutsy determination to blast and pummel the senses, whilst all the while retaining a mystical, ethereal spirit that courses sinuously through the veins of the score. One of the beauties of a Herrmann score is the sheer multitude of sounds that he manages to bring forth within each cue. Never one to take the easy option, he hurls everything into the orchestral mix, with extraordinarily delirious percussion running rampant and incredibly swooning strings complimenting one another to perfection. But it is the unorthodox use of the vibraphone, glockenspiel, harps and xylophones that are the icing on the cake here, creating deliciously unusual sounds and harmonies that, together with the clashing cymbals, throaty bellow of the bassoon and tuba, bring a full range of musical vitality and weight.

    Listeners may also like to note that this release contains an unadvertised extra track, the Prelude cue for King Of The Khyber Rifles, which is typically gregarious and inspiring. Also included is a fabulous 32-page booklet full of comprehensive notes, illustrations, mini-essays from Christopher Young, Craig Reardon (actually a special effects makeup artist whose love for Herrmann's work steered him into the movies in the first place) and the TFC team themselves, as well as a substantial cue-by-cue breakdown from Kevin Scott.

    All in all this is an awesome disc housed in a lavish package. Tribute Film Classics has done a superlative job and fans of Herrmann and the film are highly recommended to seek this edition out. One word of warning, however - be careful how you remove the booklet, as it so thick it is extremely hard to slide out of the case.

    Full track listing is as follows -
    1. Prelude 1:34

    2. The Battle 1:21*
    3. The Gates 0:38
    4. The Stairs 0:24
    5. The Tower 0:31
    6. The Escape 0:38
    7. The Balloon 1 1:18
    8. Introductions 0:29

    9. The Clouds A 1:06
    10. The Clouds B 0:55
    11. The Clouds C 0:47
    12. The Clouds D 0:41
    13. The Clouds E 1:03
    14. The Balloon 2 2:09

    15. The Island 0:39
    16. The Rocks 0:36
    17. Exploration 2:27
    18. The Giant Crab 3:02
    19. The Volcano 1:18*

    20. The Crater 0:31
    21. The Beach 1:46
    22. The Stream 0:46
    23. The Cliff 1:34
    24. The Cave 2:30
    25. Narration 1:38

    26. R. C. [Robinson Crusoe] 0:15
    27. Elena 0:34
    28. The Shadow 0:40
    29. The Bird 2:43
    30. Duo 1:52
    31. Honeycomb 1:02

    32. The Giant Bee 1 1:59
    33. The Sail 0:29
    34. The Giant Bee 2 0:51
    35. The Flag 0:52
    36. The Fire 0:38
    37. The Nautilus 1:38*

    38. The Bridge 1:14
    39. The Pirates 1:32
    40. Gunsmoke 0:42
    41. Attack 0:53++
    42. The Sinking Ship 1:05
    43. Captain Nemo 0:41

    44. The Bottle 0:31
    45. The Pipeline 1:18
    46. Underwater 1:28
    47. The Smoke 1:39
    48. Danger A 0:20
    49. Danger B 0:23

    50. Lava Flow 1:16
    51. The Octopus 1:31*
    52. The Raft 0:26
    53. The Rock 0:39
    54. The Sub Deck 0:35
    55. The Tentacles 0:31

    56. The Fight 2:50
    57. The Divers 1:17
    58. The Air Hose 0:51
    59. The Ship Rising 1:19*
    60. The Earthquake 1:04
    61. Finale 1:26*

    62. Surprise Bonus Track 2:10

    *includes music cut from the film

    ++ entire cue cut from film

    TOTAL TIME 71:27

    Verdict

    Mysterious Island represents the very best of atmospheric fantasy film scoring from, arguably, the grandmaster of such musical fare. Bernard Herrmann's compositions are wild and dangerous, beautifully wondrous and full of vigour. The sense of a lost world is acutely captured and the strength of his ominous chords and tempestuous fanfares towering as ferociously as the elements themselves. Herrmann was a genius whose prodigious talents were so often overlooked at the time - even Hitchcock would infamously fall out with him over subtleties of mood and character that time and peer appreciation has since proved to be eminently mistaken. But he has left an enormous legacy of work that continues to both resonate and fascinate. TFC and William Stromberg should be applauded for their passion and diligence in bringing this classic back in such a momentous presentation. A much earlier release was incomplete and certainly didn't sound anywhere near as lively and clear as this.

    As with most Bernard Herrmann scores, the listening experience is so enveloping and haunting that its themes reverberate through the mind and the heart long after the music has stopped. TFC has scored hugely with this bold and loving release. A review of Fahrenheit 451 will follow shortly. Mysterious Island gains, unreservedly, a 10 out of 10. Excellent.