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Nightwing - Original Motion Picture Score Soundtrack Review

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by Chris McEneany Apr 20, 2009

  • Movies review

    1,486

    Nightwing - Original Motion Picture Score Soundtrack Review

    In the world of movies, 1979 provided a wonderful explosion of heavily influential genre productions. It saw Ridley Scott unleash his Alien upon a very unsuspecting audience, George Miller rev-up Mad Max for some auto-fuelled revenge and Lewis Gilbert blast James Bond into outer space for Moonraker. It also saw a weird and wonderful swing-shift for two of Hollywood's most notable and familiar names - director Arthur Hiller and score composer Henry Mancini - who broke with their own traditions and took what turned out to be an ill-fated sojourn into the land of ecological horror for the movie adaptation of Martin Cruz Smith's sobering and pedantic novel, Nightwing. Both were known for material that was vastly different from that that would be expected from a nightmare-flick about bubonic plague-carrying bats invading an Indian reservation in eastern Arizona and the battle to end their reign of terror by a disparate group of ragtag heroes. Hiller was primarily associated with comedies and gentle dramas revolving around witty banter and sociological observation, and Mancini was best known for, well, scoring comedies and gentle dramas revolving around witty banter and sociological observation. Most famously, of course, he was the composer of the immortal Pink Panther theme. His sixties frivolities and jazzy seventies themes would seem totally at odds with such a bleak concept as the Man versus Nature sub-genre that had grown up in the wake of Spielberg's runaway hit, Jaws, from several years earlier. Things like The Swarm (with Jerry Goldsmith scoring), Grizzly (with Robert O. Ragland), Prophecy (with Leonard Rosenmen) and Piranha (with Pino Donnagio) were doing the rounds and painting what would become a severely undervalued, yet highly prescient blockade regarding our mistreatment of the natural world. Nightwing, however, was perhaps the most derided of the bunch.

    Tagged as “Jaws with Wings”, the film had the great David Warner as a loopy and obsessed naturalist and bat expert very much in the Robert Shaw mould of the shark-hunting Quint, albeit textured with the academia of Richard Dreyfuss' ichthyologist, Matt Hooper. Nick Mancuso played the Native Indian deputy, Duran, whose Reservation beat had become the unwitting target of the bat colony, and his bureaucratic wrangles with corporate business and small town greed clearly echo poor Roy Schieder's Police Chief Brody and his sparring with the belligerent local Amity officials. Round about here, though, the similarities end. Hiller, himself, was more interested in the spiritual side of the story, embodied by tribal shaman, Abner, played by George Clutesi, who has foreseen the death of his people and decided to end the world by, allegedly, summoning the bats, himself. The theme of an indigenous population being detribalized and the revolt of nature was, um, heap big medicine back in the late seventies, but Hiller's use of the movement in a horror setting both trivialised the campaign and weakened the fear element. Of course, Carlo Rambaldi's radio-controlled mechanical bats played their part in making audiences roll their eyes in a combination of boredom and dismay, too. Pedestrian scares and some lacklustre performances didn't help, either. Yet, the film still has much going for it. The stunning desert setting, the evocative and mysterious cave network, the luscious Kathryn Harrold, as Deputy Duran's plucky love-interest and, of course, Henry Mancini's haunting score would all help to make the film, which failed badly at the box office, go on to become something of guilty pleasure and late-night TV favourite.

    Although Mancini's main theme for the film was released on his fun album, “Mancini In Surround - Mostly Monsters, Murders and Mysteries” from a long time ago, this limited edition CD from Varese Sarabande represents the first time that the full (or nearly full - and more on that later) score has been made available. Oft requested and now finally here, the score whipped-up something of a fan-boy frenzy prior to its debut. Mancini has always been an important and immensely popular composer, although the likes of this score would mark a massive change in tone and musical voice from the normally light-hearted and easygoing compositions he was famous for. But what people don't realise is that the Cleveland-born tune-smith cut his teeth on scoring some of the great Sci-Fi and horror B-movies from the fifties for Universal, during his tenure in their Music Department. Such fantastic drive-in fodder as The Creature From The Black Lagoon and the second of its two sequels, The Creature Walks Among Us, It Came From Outer Space, This Island Earth, Tarantula and the unbelievably wacky The Monolith Monsters were all treated to his studied, yet economical approach. So, returning to the genre that he started his career with must have represented something of a pleasant homecoming for him. But he had learned a thing or two since those days toiling alongside the classical Hans J. Salter, for there had also been moody highlights of pictures such as The Thing That Couldn't Die, Experiment In Terror and Touch Of Evil, for Orson Wells, to his credit as well, so his recruitment for Hiller's movie - actually their fourth collaboration with the director by now - was not an unusual choice, after all.

    Mancini opted for a minimalist approach, his music glued together by one dependable theme that worked as a leit motif not only for the plight of the Indians, but for the eeriness of the desert, the supernatural-cum-visionary omens and the scientific bad tidings from Warner's single-minded boffin. A veritable catch-all theme that, via subtle inflection, could veer from heartfelt whimsy to alienation and dread. The score works well in the film, but, arguably, presents something that, once divorced from the visual narrative, takes a bit of getting used to here on disc.

    A full track-by-track rundown of the score, as I would normally do, is not necessary with Nightwing. Only a couple of themes actually make up the score and these skilfully and gently interweave throughout, like clouds coming together in the sky. Taking his cue from the epic landscapes of the New Mexico and Nevada locations used in the film, Mancini creates a soft and melancholy lament for ethnic flute, tinkling piano, harp and trombone. Evocative of a lonely mountain, the piano becomes a bubbling spring, the Indian flute soars like an eagle on the wind. Edgy strings buttress their way in, shifting the tone from gentle rhapsody to burgeoning menace and trepidation, but the theme is not a conventional horror cue at all. When Blur's Damon Albarn and composer Michael Nyman got together to create the wonderful, madcap, hodgepodge score for the eclectic outdoors cannibal-yarn, Ravenous, they must have listened to the lyrical meld of textures that Mancini composed here and incorporated something of his style into their quieter, more trance-like moments. Although the theme rarely alters throughout most of the score, Mancini captures a spirit that is at once ominous and beautific - his tempo and instrumentation changing subtly and his unsettling string-dominated foundation singing glassily in the background, reminding us constantly that no matter how undramatic the music may be at the moment, there is definitely something dangerous lurking not too far away.

    The theme of tribal disenfranchisement is never far away either. At the same time as this great windswept mountain range theme, there is a distinct desert Indian layer of whistles, flutes and other soft woodwinds that generate a feeling of floating isolation and timelessness. You could argue that Mancini's tribal theme makes for a great soothing nature track, the kind that could help you to relax, but that lingering background impression of discord and unease keeps your thoughts from getting too cosy. This theme eventually gets inside your head and stays there, filtering like the breeze through the high rocks. Mancini certainly knew what he was doing. Deliberately evoking the clash between nature and civilisation, the voices of our ancestors seem to be whispering their warnings to us. Many composers would resort to stereotypical Indian warblings and tribal shakes, but Mancini genuinely seems to have connected to the story in a far more spiritual way. The film couldn't live up to the pictures that he attempted to conjure and it is tempting to believe that he became more smitten with the rugged physicality of the land and its untamed soul than by the plot or the characters, themselves.

    When action does come, it is swift and sure, and yet altogether from the same stable as the softer material that dominates the score, thus even though the speed and violence of the tracks radically differ, the tone is still anchored by the same instrumentation and musical colour. Track 10, Escape from The Bats, only lasts for 47 seconds but it is a driven piece that charges along with jarring piano chords, an almost Goldsmith-esque swirl for strings and then a clarion-call for horn to help the cue rise to a sudden flaring crescendo. Track 13, Search For Anne, features trombone over horn and undulating strings for its first part, and then slides into colder, more tragic territory for a ghostly piano and icily stretched violin. Harsher strings then come in to place urgency and impatience on the track, before that gorgeously plucked harp serenades the final arc of the piece. Track 19, Battle In The Bat Cave, offers more agitato. After a meandering start that lets the main theme become engulfed with tense strings in an almost Howard Shore style of cold terseness, another motif crawls in. The mood changes into one of desperation. The piano thuds ominously in the background, almost subliminally nudging the track into deadlier ground, and viola and celli rise steadily until a warbling flute and trombone are placed coolly over the top of what could, in a cynical frame of mind, be termed as Mancini's Jaws motif - a relentless three-note momentum that mathematically bounds towards us, as opposed to John Williams' more “instinctively” developed core theme. But, still maintaining that almost surreal folding of the orchestra's voice, the cue never once feels directed in our face, Mancini, unlike most of his contemporaries, never going for the more obvious and clichéd effect of hitting us over the head with fierce bombast to tell us either to “run” or to “hide”. This is typical of this haunting score, the music gently unfurling without the haste that many would expect, especially from a sequence that has Nick Mancuso and Kathryn Harrold making their escape from a cave now ablaze with burning bats.

    Track 21, Nightwing, delivers a marvellous retelling of the main theme, this time recalling the sad epitaph of Lalo Schifrin's score for Dirty Harry, a solo trumpet performing a tragic lament for a land and a society that stand on the brink of extinction. Two source cues follow as bonus tracks. But these, Bat Song and Bat Song II are purely instrumental country ballads that “plinky-plink” merrily away in a drowsy background fugue of heat and dust. They do, sadly, deviate from the main score, but are easily programmed out.

    A couple of years later we would see Michael (Woodstock) Wadleigh tackle the ecological and tribal debate in another, and infinitely superior horror film, Wolfen, based on Whitley Streiber's best-selling novel about super-intelligent wolves living in the heart of Manhattan. That film would also find a melancholy lament for its main theme, but would mark one of the earliest and most striking scores from the great James Horner - and soundtrack-fans still crave a full official release of his outstanding music for the Albert Finney-starring movie. Now, with the likes of Mancini's offering finally seeing the light of day, perhaps the door will open a little wider to let Horner's wolf-pack through. Mancini, himself, would go on to even greater and more celebrated genre scoring with his absolutely barnstorming and highly acclaimed music for Tobe Hooper's goofy-but-great Lifeforce and his ebullient and dynamic work for The Great Mouse Detective. Lifeforce is available in a two-disc edition from BSX Records and comes with a huge recommendation, folks. Some people seem hell-bent on finding similarities between that triumphant score and Nightwing, but, being totally honest, I can't hear any at all. Nightwing is calming, hypnotic, cold and desolate. Lifeforce is majestic, eerie and spectrally luminous and it does, of course, contain one of the genre's greatest and most propulsive main title marches. Actually the two scores make curiously effective bed-fellows, a Yin and Yang of mystery, power and yearning menace, and represent two distinct extremes for a composer forever tagged as being jazzy and middle of the road.

    A couple of points need mentioning, though. Firstly, there is some noticeable hiss and some slight crackling on this recording - however, this is not detrimental at all, and you may even possibly find that it actually adds to the desolate atmosphere of the score, like tumble-weeds rolling through the dust. And, secondly and more importantly, there appears to be a cue missing from the release. During the finale, when the bats have been set on fire and our heroes are fleeing the cave, Mancini propels things with a greater surge of strings and trombones - a terrific moment of orchestral momentum that serves as a wonderful capper to all the dissonance and melancholy heard beforehand - but this cue does not seem to have made it on to the disc. People have commented that, in the film version, music may have been tracked-in from an earlier cue, but I don't think this is the case. Certainly the cue is reminiscent of the faster moments of the score, but I'm positive that it is a separate track in its own right. Perhaps it is too damaged for the album producers to have included it, or it is merely lost from the archive. Unlike Intrada or FSM and other select soundtrack labels, Varese Sarabande are notorious for not referencing how their material has been sourced, so I can shed no more light on the history of this particular presentation.

    But, boasting wonderful cover art from one of the film's various theatrical posters - love that eerie landscape that forms into a bat silhouette - and containing some brief liner-notes from Jerry McCulley that tend to look more at the film than the soundtrack, this release certainly comes recommended.

    Eerie, melancholic and coldly lyrical. It may take some listens to fully appreciate it, but Henry Mancini's bleak score is well worth seeking out.

    Full Track Listing -

    1. Main Title (03:16)

    2. Abner's Painting (01:16)

    3. Visit to Kochina Springs (01:18)

    4. Just a Chill (00:49)

    5. Abner Has Left (00:58)

    6. Be Careful (00:34)

    7. Abner's Burial (02:28)

    8. Up In Smoke (01:15)

    9. He's Risen (00:25)

    10. Escape From the Bats (00:47)

    11. Goin' Fishin' (02:11)

    12. Dead Priests (00:46)13. The Lines Cross (01:34)

    14. Search For Anne (03:55)

    15. They Are Evil (01:17)

    16. Return To the Root (02:57)

    17. The Bat Nest (02:45)

    18. They Are Evil II (01:30)

    19. Battle In the Bat Cave (05:18)

    20. Finale / End Title (01:59)

    21. Nightwing (04:13)

    Bonus Tracks

    22. Bat Song (01:33)

    23. Bat Song II (01:19)


    Verdict

    Whilst definitely a cause for celebration, this release of Mancini's score for Nightwing is still tempered by the fact that it misses one of its more dramatic cues. However, as produced by Varese Sarabande's ubiquitous Robert Townson, this limited edition is still hugely recommended for fans of the composer. It certainly marks a different style and a beautiful approach to uncustomary material for the man behind so many breezy romantic comedies. Lyrical and laden with melancholy, this may well be an acquired taste, but it is one that I believe becomes gently addictive.

    The original novel was something of a chore to get through. Hiller's movie was lacking in the requisite scares and its confusion over bats, plagues and tribal curses meant that it lost it own internal rhythm and, ultimately, short-changed all three ideas. The one consistent element was Henry Mancini's terrific score. He, alone, found the spirit of the story and his eloquent score can now be savoured in almost its entirety.

    This edition is limited to only 1500 copies ... so be quick.


    The Rundown

    Movie

    8

    Overall

    8

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