Folks, this review will be a relatively short, sharp shock report as opposed to the usual in-depth coverage. Basically, time is of the essence with this one. Once again, the phenomenal score label, Intrada, have come up with the goods … but, as is becoming worryingly typical, this is another severely limited release – only 1200 copies worldwide, this time – that has almost entirely disappeared already, so I would urge those interested to make their order forthwith! This was released right alongside John Williams' gloriously celestial and uplifting score for SpaceCamp – which I had intended to review as well, but was totally sold out in a couple of days, pretty much negating a write-up – and is a very welcome and long-awaited addition to composer Bill (Rocky) Conti's distinctive body of work. Already pretty well-represented on disc – with great and diverse titles such as Masters Of The Universe, Uncle Joe Shannon, The Right Stuff (reviewed separately) and North And South still available, not to mention a cluster of Stallone scores – the composer's style is well-known and highly regarded. But this score to the Eric Red written and directed road-thriller, Cohen & Tate, is something of a radical departure from his usually rousing and fanfare-led oeuvre. In fact, this is about as far removed from Rocky as you could possibly get. But the music he came up with for this relentlessly grim drama about two hit-men – the coldly professional Cohen (Roy Scheider proving that he could play a nasty) and the psychotic Tate (a brutally malevolent Adam Baldwin) – escorting the young boy who witnessed a mob-killing to his own possible execution through a nightmarish road-trip across a bleak and ghostly Texas, is starkly beautiful, hauntingly lyrical and tremendously powerful. His writing, matching the vicious and suspense-filled story of how nine-year old Travis Knight (Harley Cross) engages the pair in a battle of wits and succeeds in turning his captors against one-another, is agreeably dark, sinister and violent. It is also spellbindingly symphonic in its evocation of unceasing psychological torment and macabre motivation. Conti threw away his conventional rule-book and explored the depths of his soul for this one, and the resulting score is a real eye-opener for fans of his who may not be familiar with the rarely seen film.
Eric Red had already delved into the American fascination with cars and long open stretches of black-top with his screenplays for The Hitcher and for Near Dark, but this three-character powerhouse was his directorial debut. Despite garnering crowd-puller Roy Scheider and Full Metal Jacket's gung-ho Baldwin and devising a tale that combined the winning elements of his previous scripts with a blistering central premise, the film's controversial subject matter and unrelenting tone sparked trouble for its eventual distribution which was, at best, scanty. The writer/director had apparently wanted the late great Elmer Bernstein to score the film, but Bernstein took umbrage with the nasty mood of the piece and took the project no further. Bill Conti, so long known for his upbeat and valorous musical tastes had been actively seeking darker-themed material for a while, scoring the likes of supernatural-tinged thriller Nomads for John McTiernan, the Bryan Brown-starring F/X: Murder By Illusion and Mickey Rourke's rather floundering IRA drama A Prayer For The Dying, and he made his enthusiasms for Red's film quite clear to the director, lobbying hard for the opportunity. Red conceded with the proviso that Conti take the instrument that has made his signature themes and fanfares so memorable, the French horn, and subvert its qualities to the extent that it became a dark and tainted device in the musical tapestry of this three-way pressure-cooker of dread.
Conti's modus operandi throughout is to juxtapose the subtle and hauntingly tender theme for Travis, a fragile motif played on the piano, with the seriously doom-fuelled wall of violence and hostility that the rest of the fifty-plus orchestra constructs for the hit-men and their devastating trail of destruction. This tit-for-tat game will progress and evolve, with hints of the piano motif always tripping its way into even the most seething and hard-hitting sections, reminding us of the awful predicament that the boy is in, after his parents and an FBI agent have been callously gunned down, and he is flung into the back of a getaway car and driven off into the night. Shimmering strings, the piano theme and Conti's beloved French horn collide and mesh with brass and percussion in the Main Title to capture the conflict of the mismatched killers and the dividing mischief of their young captive. This opening expertly sets the tone for what will follow – menace, shattered innocence and ferocity. This theme will also come to serve Scheider's mob killer as well.
Simmering slow-burn suspense forms the backbone of Track 2's The Hit, when our two killers abduct the boy from a very un-safe house. The strings shiver with apprehension, the orchestra flitting nervously between big savage flourishes and swirling, terror-laced sustains. More tense stand-offs parry in the next track too. Edgy strings giving way to the French horn that plays out in a long and sombre, muted voice, essaying the isolation and bleakness of the boy's clearly untenable position. The piano tries to enter the fray, reminding us of Travis' innocence amidst these strangers, but ominous strings symbolically keep his head down. Track 4, Tail Lites, commences with the piano theme – delicate and heartbreaking. Nervous strings accompany it and, together with searing brass and horn, reaches a crescendo of staggering brilliance as Travis makes a dramatic bid for escape. The piano theme keeps apace with the sky-piercing strings that spiral away over the top, creating a carousel of despair and fear as the boy lurches into the path of oncoming trucks. The track then collapses under the weight of the tension, giving in to a darkly lulling final spell of shivering violins and viola that sound like the frighteningly apprehensive foundation to Trevor Jones' dense score to the atmospheric From Hell. This constant see-sawing from grimly escalating foreboding to anxious tenderness becomes a drug, the one element somehow making you crave the other to complete the composition and, consequently, your thematic fix.
Heavy piano chords strike out at the start of Track 5's It's Them, then devolve into jagged clusters set against an approaching wall of strings and bass. This is carried on, becoming an ostinato in the following track. The longest and possibly most remarkably sustained piece comes next in the exciting and startlingly grim Roadblock. Suspense is trotted out ominously on an echoing piano. Gleaming viola hovers as a percussive momentum develops in a fateful beat that grows slowly in power. Muted brass flares. The build continues, tick-tocking its way across the track. Nervous energy gathers as Tate reveals his steadily declining grasp on humanity and more chaos ensues. The surge is relentless and addictive, Conti ensuring that we couldn't get off this wild ride even if we wanted to.
Kaboom, Track8, is injected with stabbing figures and aggressive percussion, then wildly spiralling strings and a frenzied leapfrogging motif from the piano. This is musical insanity – giddy and frightening, yet also alarmingly entertaining at the same time, almost a carnival of orchestral grotesquerie. Track 9 is swiftly dispensed with anxious strings, deep piano and brass for a flurry of murderous extremes. Then Conti beautifully creates a very Bernard Herrmann-esque passage of lush strings and brooding brass to suitably and hauntingly melancholic effect. The French horn figures several times throughout the track, but delivers a mournfully noble phrase at the end. Track 11, Near Miss, offers a steadily rising clamour of violence. Bass pounds out a deadly heartbeat, as strings whirl and cavort above, those infernal piano chords belted out again with sinister depth and echo. Another sizzling crescendo is reached as Cohen and Tate, now bitter enemies, battle it out and the psycho is apparently left for dead on the road. Light glistening percussion sees out the track with a sense of glimmering mysterioso.
The bass drum opens up Round To Tate, charging strings and frantic piano barrelling along in a stampede beside each other as it is revealed that the lunatic assassin is actually still alive and a lot too close to Cohen and Travis for comfort. Conti delivers us a furious ostinato whilst the piano either jangles heavily with dread on the low notes or hits the higher range for skittish accents of action. Track 13, Travis Slips Away, has the growing tension of cold layers of strings and long, anxious sustains that Howard Shore's Cronenbergian days were often filled with. Deep and dark, the music is serious and heavily doom-laden. Listen to the occasional sinew-slicing of the violins, and the raucous build of brass in the background as the strings slowly climb inexorably towards a point of no return. Gentle figures from the harp and piano are lost as the piece hits an unbearable final note of dark intensity. Help Me, Track 14, is divided into two halves. The first is a sinuous and lulling respite for strings, piano and French horn, almost a battered breather after the fury of what has gone before. The main theme reappears, lost, lonely and fragile, signifying a dark bond that now exists between Cohen and the boy as they continue their duel with Tate. They are on the road to oblivion. Both know that, and their relationship has gone from implacably divided to eerily tender. The piano lullaby is crystal clear and tragic, the French horn wistful and wounded, drifting on the wind. And then the second half comes crashing in with a fierce piano chord that lingers until stinging strings clutch away its momentum and a stark and icy two-note piano phrase limps painfully into a rising squall of brass as the vengeful Tate reappears for the kill.
The Final Battle comes in Track 15, commencing with anguished, traumatised high strings and then trembling piano accompanied by lower strings that shiver and roil with overlapping and chilling suspense. The French horns kick in as the cue descends into darker territory for Tate's nasty final moment, and then the mournful theme for Cohen, which is also the main theme for the film, returns in earnest – brass and piano conjoined in tragic sacrifice. Percussion, bass and celli then nudge their way in, twisting the knife of fate even deeper. High keening strings make a defiant statement, the cue building to another of Conti's emotional crescendos. There is a lull, as the orchestra drops for a mighty, nerve-shot second, then the strings resume their exultant anguish … and Cohen, now surrounded by cops, makes his date with destiny, finally allowing Travis to go free with one last gunshot ringing out.
The End Title, heard in Track 16, was actually unused in the final film. Eric Red opted to close with a reprise of The Final Battle, but this is Conti's original string-led chamber-style finale. Searing and lush, almost stately, this is a traditional lament that sounds very classical yet fits the score, at large, perfectly, ending the tortured and deadly saga with what could possibly be termed as a Shakespearean-infused melody for dark deeds and redemption.
There is a definite Jewish flavour to that recurring main theme, inspired by Scheider's committed performance as the pragmatic and marginally more humane Cohen, already an outsider even in such a grim profession as his, but very reminiscent in its depth and haunting tone of Holocaust-evoking motifs found in the likes of The World At War and Schindler's List, for example. It is a beautiful but upsetting theme for a film that is horribly violent – both Cohen & Tate chalk-up quite a bodycount of innocents straying into their cross-country path. Yet Conti is excellent at punctuating the unceasing rage and hostility with such a noble and almost ghostly refrain. The score is marvellously structured and tells a fine story in its own right, even divorced from the visual. Even, in fact, if you haven't seen the film itself. Poetic and powerful at the same time. Lyrical and demented.
So, here we have one of Bill Conti's most unusual and dynamic scores to date. Cohen & Tate is rich and deep and intense. Its themes are redolent and disturbing, with flavours of the baroque and the deranged spiking them almost continuously. The composer's fantastic sense of momentum, suspense and shivering dread is all-encompassing and a delight to hear unfold. With its scintillating audio quality and a lavish 16-page illustrated booklet of notes from Daniel Schweiger, this is a terrific and important release from Intrada of a sadly overlooked and marginalised thriller that really deserves more acclaim.
Highly recommended … especially for those who think that Bill Conti can only compose rousing fanfares!
Full Track Listing
1. Main Title 1:13
2. The Hit 5:33
3. Wounded? 3:50
4. Tail Lites 4:23
5. It’s Them 1:11
6. It’s Really Them 0:54
7. Roadblock 6:11
8. Kaboom 1:18
9. The New Car 0:38
10. Travis Is Right 2:48
11. Near Miss 1:58
12. Round To Tate 1:43
13. Travis Slips Away 2:33
14. Help Me 1:17
15. The Final Battle 4:40
16. End Title 2:06/p>
Total Disc Time: 43:02
Conti's darkest hour comes courtesy of a stellar sounding release from Intrada. Anguished strings, discordant brass and French horn and the haunting lament from the piano mark this score out as a thing of cold, brutal beauty. Those who are familiar with Bill Conti's work will delight in this usually hidden quality of dense fear and dread and the aching suspense that he is able to bring to a musical saga of pain, torment and unbearable tension.
The film was never given the attention that it deserved, especially not in the States, but has since found something of a cult following on home video. Without a doubt, a key element that makes the story so strong and emotive is this electrifying score. Conti was never so deeply character-based as he was with this. Rocky and The Right Stuff were too broad to be personal. Masters Of The Universe was large-scale and epic. Lock Up was tightly claustrophobic and ultimately heroic. Even the tender Uncle Joe Shannon was a big showcase for jazzy brass. But Cohen & Tate has a deliberate darkness that cuts deep into the agonised minds of three people thrust out into no-man's land and forces us to rummage bloodily into their damaged psyches.
Excellent stuff from a composer who bravely took on something new, something primal, raw and seething … and came up with a mini-classic.
Another highly recommended release from Intrada, score-fans!
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