First Blood - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack Soundtrack Review

by Chris McEneany
Movies & TV Shows Review

First Blood - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack Soundtrack Review
“When they draw first blood

that's just the start of it

Day and night, you've gotta fight

To keep alive.”

With Stallone reawakening the beast that is Rambo for a triumphant return to form, let's not forget that one absolutely essential component that led to the character's success was not the knife, not the muscles, not the bandana ... but the solid backbone of musical testosterone that would help him blast through any and every obstacle between him and his objective. If John Williams' classic scores for Indiana Jones taught the adventurer when to run, when to duck and when to “make it up” as he goes along, then the towering icon that is Jerry Goldsmith would use his skills in much the same way as the troubled Vietnam Vet would in his cordite-reaking adventures on the run and living off the land. Back in 1982, the famous star of Rocky would open a can of cinematic and cultural whup-ass when he and director Ted Kotcheff tackled the incredible first novel from David Morrell, First Blood from a good decade earlier. It would be a small success, at first, but would go on to garner one of the most frenzied and controversial followings that a relatively simple action-thriller could attain. It is hard to imagine the Oscar-winning (for The Omen) composer Jerry Goldsmith not coming up with a classic score to run alongside it, but his eventual accompaniment is one of the boldest and most exciting musical tours de force that you could wish for.

“It's a real war,

right outside your front door, I'll tell ya

Out where they'll kill ya,

You could use a friend.”

Bookended by the haunting and lyrical “It's A Long Road” - initially in a tranquil, almost John Barry-esque treatment going under the title of Homecoming (Track 1) and then rounded off with an instrumental rendition and then the full version with Dan Hill's celebrated vocals - the score feels wonderfully contained and complete in a way that so many other soundtracks fail to achieve. Now, in a style that Goldsmith enjoyed a lot during the seventies, the score for First Blood was released as an album that, barring the afore-mentioned tracks, contained the music presented in a concert fashion that plays out of synch with the film's actual chronology, but making the collection flow in a more thematically pleasing manner. Perhaps what is most surprising considering that Parts II and III (reviews coming soon, folks) have since been released with extra tracks, extensive liner notes and in chronological order, is that First Blood's score remains untouched. However, a reassuring thing, and a definite rarity for Goldsmith and collectors of his soundtracks, is that this release does actually contain practically all the music that was featured in the movie. Of course, he may have written more - alternates, cut cues etc - but, as far as I am aware, this is the complete recording of Goldsmith's powerful and groundbreaking score, the film simply replays some moments a couple of times that may make it seem as though there is more music.

Boldly experimental when the project requires it - Planet Of The Apes, The Omen Trilogy and Alien especially - Goldsmith could also be relied upon to find the essential human element of a score, no matter what its genre - horror, thriller, western, adventure or sci-fi - and successfully interweave it through various guises and interpretations throughout. His use of the leit-motif, or signature cue for a character or a situation that reoccurs within a story, is possibly his strongest attribute. Even his work for things like Spielberg's Poltergeist, with its otherwise bravura set-pieces, benefited from several ethereal and haunting key melodies to foster the score with a familiarity that seems to evolve as it progresses. But with action movies Goldsmith found the perfect medium with which to create character, setting and atmospherics and still wrap them around pulse-pounding, incredibly taut and eternally catchy breakneck passages of pure adrenaline. With inspired, yet surprisingly classical, use of brass, extensive strings and percussion, the composer takes his material to an altogether more dynamic and instinctive plane. Nobody, but nobody makes a set-piece action cue as perfectly enjoyable, exciting or as emotional as Jerry Goldsmith. Nobody. Totally at home with individual passages that denote quick-fire bedlam - like The Hunt in Apes, Breakout in Capricorn One, Klingon Battle from Star Trek: TMP or The Hunt (yes, another one) in The Final Conflict - he was also extraordinarily adept at staging wildly varied scores that still kept up a thunderous momentum from start to finish, such as The Wind And The Lion or King Solomon's Mines. Even the scores he produced in the last couple of years of his life were just as powerful, evocative and downright rousing as in his heyday - things like The 13th Warrior, The Mummy and The Sum Of All Fears. Yet, the balance that he crafted for Kotcheff's film between the pathos and tragedy of Rambo's self-exile and persecution, and his heroic retribution, raw defiance and sheer galvanising willpower when pushed will remain a high-water mark for all-round, high-impact, high-resonance scoring in contemporary movies. Before him, only the likes of the great Max (King Kong) Steiner could perform such magnificent work at both ends of the spectrum for the same score.

Let's look at the highlights of this short, sharp shock of a score.

After the eloquent Homecoming, with its luxuriously deceptive Barry-style lush quality of guitar and sweeping strings and the lone trumpet, Goldsmith's album launches the offensive with Escape Route. Here, we are introduced to the famous 5-note recurring theme that symbolises Rambo on the move. Brilliantly evoking the moment when Rambo finds the way out of the old, rat-infested mine-tunnel and scampers through the woods, all thoughts of doing a flit far from his mind as cold, hard revenge consumes him and the opportunities of a passing National Guard truck present themselves. It is lively and insistent, the drive that Goldsmith creates infectious and urging.

Sombre and reflective is the next track, entitled simply First Blood. That mournful trumpet strikes up with the military lament, Rambo's veritable Last Post, and the score turns inward into the big guy's painful solitude and dismay at the loss of all of his comrades. Once again, Goldsmith is deviating slightly on the Long Road cue, its lonely cadence conjuring imagery of faded photographs and friends no more. But for the album, the track then slides inexorably into the deep, booming pounding of the National Guard drum-roll and then a combination of Rambo's headlong flight from them later in the film, but primarily his outrunning of Teasle' posse much earlier on, and, of course, gruff old Galt in the helicopter taking pot-shots at him with his hunting rifle. “What are you doing? We're just supposed to spot him!” This is a splendid example of how Goldsmith produces complex cues that continually up the pace, whilst adding more layers of sound and instrumentation all the time. Listen out for how the strings see-saw through the action.

The Tunnel then slows the pell-mell pace down a bit for the slow journey that Rambo makes in the flooded caves. Shrieking strings for the rats and the plunge into the water add drama and long drawn-out notes suffuse the cue with expressive, claustrophobic tension. Even so, this is a respite from the roaring action we have had so far. Hanging On commences with the driving timpani and softly-heard military backbeat beneath Rambo's main theme as the avenger heads back to town and raids the gun store. The cue then becomes the piece that its title was created for - with Rambo running from Orval and his “damn dogs” before coming to a dead end that only he can find a way out of. Magnificent scoring really has you clinging onto that precarious cliff face for dear life alongside John J. as good ol' Gault swings in for some aerial sniping. “If you don't fly this thing right ... I swear to God, I'm gonna kill you ...”

Track 6, Mountain Hunt contains one of the most magnificent action fanfare pay-offs in Goldsmith's canon. Once Rambo commandeers the truck (“Don't look at me, look at the road ... that's how accidents happen!”) and ploughs straight on through the police roadblock, Goldsmith delivers the best, albeit short, presentation of our hero's main theme. Listening to the track it is totally impossible not to see in your mind's eye that truck plummeting into the air and bouncing back down on that fateful bridge again. Stabbing blasts on the trumpet herald amassed strings screeching like banshees and then the enormous blast of the bass and that triumphant clash of the cymbals rock the score into the stratosphere. Wild and heart-lurching stuff, folks. If this doesn't get you on your feet, call a doctor. Of course, in-keeping with the album-concept of the score release, the track then segues backwards, thematically, to then take us, after another National Guard drum-roll, through the eerie and intense cat-and-mouse episode that sees Rambo taking out Teasle's posse in the lightning-split woods. Orchestral innovation and some vague electronic samplings provide mimics of the natural sounds of the forest, gradually building into each successive “hit” that Rambo makes, effectively forming musical stingers that loudly stab through the track to catch the unwary listener by surprise as much as Teasle's deputies when they are ambushed. Listen out for the frightening medieval string-play that reminds of Morricone's skittering violins for The Thing or similar work from Joe Doluca for The Evil Dead. At this point it is worth stating how well Goldsmith combines cues for his album releases. Although I much prefer the now-more-commonplace linear scores, this is one composer who actually had concert adaptations of his soundtracks in mind even when he was writing them. Goldsmith fans should take note that many of his scores are now available in deluxe editions that, in some cases, contain both the full score and the album versions. But there is little to complain about with First Blood's rearranging and amalgamation of tracks into a sonically cohesive whole.

“Don't move. I don't want you to cut your own throat.”

After some tense and fluttering forest-set atmospherics with strings and a wistful reminder of Rambo's plight on the trumpet and soft guitar, Goldsmith strides out with The Razor (Track 8), which does exactly what its title and the scene in the film demand of it. With icy, skin-prickling finesse, Goldsmith cuts the air with a musical blade so sharp that it slices deep into the heart of Rambo's trauma, splitting the civilian façade that he as adopted and unleashing the battle-hardened, battle-loving monster that lurks within. Something that sounds like a dentist's drill going underwater lacerates the tense build-up and what, in the film at least, is the first actual action cue erupts with a visceral powerhouse of jabbing chords, pounding percussion and violent propulsion that mimics Rambo's vicious close-quarter combat in the cell-block and then up the stairs and through the police station - the music kicking, punching, running and sliding when he does - until rising into the debut of his main signature fanfare as he bursts out of the cop-shop and roars out of town on a stolen motorcycle. Awesome stuff, indeed, but not the most tactful of things to listen to on your ear-phones when sitting at your desk at work! And for a scene that is instantly repeatable on DVD/BD etc, it proves to be just as addictive sans the visuals. In fact, this cue, as with many others in Goldsmith's breathtaking back-catalogue, can actually tell a story in its own right. Whilst others opt for generic percussion with solid backbeats, or tonal ambience, Goldsmith structures his music almost as though he is directing little note-shaped people across the manuscript. Naturally, being an extremely gifted conductor, this sort of energy and connection to his orchestra should be instinctive, yet he remains one of the most consistently dynamic and physically involving composers that there has been.

No power, Track 9, uses piano, drums and synth-jabs to punctuate the scene of Rambo bringing a war that Teasle won't believe to his doorstep. Fires rage across town, explosions rock the night and suddenly both Rambo and Goldsmith seem to realise that the end is near - in the film at least. The album doesn't let us off the hook that easily, however. Track 10, Over The Cliff, returns us to the death-plunge that Rambo makes to evade Gault's thermo-draught-displaced bullets. His bough-breaking descent to the ground actually feels painful even without the visual imagery of Stallone smacking into that seriously unyielding branch on the way down. All that is missing from this complete cue is that wonderful bubbling electro-hiss when Rambo hauls up Gault's flattened head to stare into his dead eyes. Shame, really, because I would have loved to have heard that sick splat that his bashed noggin makes on the rocks when Rambo lets go of him!

“Rambo, it was a tough time for all of us. Don't end it like this.”

I'm not sure whose idea it was to have a song at the end of the film. Stallone certainly likes to have some 70's style crooning to help send his heroes off into the sunset and Jerry Goldsmith had already written the signature music for It's A Long Road and incorporated it at various junctures throughout the film. His original instrumental version was supposed to play out over the end credits, but a last-minute decision to put a vocal track on top of it meant that, if anything, a little more era-sensitive soul-searching was afforded the piece. Some people think the song is tacky and pure cheeseball. Personally, I love the song and the lyrics - penned by Goldsmith and sung by Dan Hill - clearly tell the story of Rambo's saga up until this point. One of the best vocal pay-offs in cinema, folks. That final freeze-frame with Rambo looking back and everyone else looking at him with a mixture of fear, hate and awe (including us), is all the more potent when a bittersweet, quasi-country ode plays out over it. Softening the violence that has gone before, it still signposts the torment, anger and agony that many Vietnam Vets felt when they returned to a home that wasn't pleased to see them. And if Stallone's incarnation of Rambo is their avenging angel, then Jerry Goldsmith wrote their anthem. Excellent ... but then you knew that already.

Track Listing is as follows:

1. Homecoming (2.21)

2. Escape Route (2.39)

3. First Blood (4.36)

4. The Tunnel (4.02)

5. Hanging On (3.29)

6. Mountain Hunt (6.06)

7. My Town (1.55)

8. The Razor (3.08)

9. No Power (2.51)

10. Over The Cliff (2.03)

11. It's A Long Road - instrumental (2.51)

12. It's A Long Road - vocals by Dan Hill (3.19)

Total Running Time 39.20A true trendsetter in the genre, Goldsmith's score for First Blood is one of the all-time greats. Considering how short the score actually is, it is remarkable just how much iconic stuff he managed to place in there. Rambo's main themes would be reworked and polished by the composer throughout the next two entries in the series and some truly magnificent and diverse new action music would also be created, but the template was started here. Tracks like Mountain Hunt and The Razor are justifiably action-score Royalty, yet the whole work is an accomplished progression of what are basically brassy, percussion-dominated military riffs. If Bill Conti's theme for Rocky was inspiring enough to have people flooding into the gym, then Goldsmith's Rambo would dig deeper into the psyche to locate the noble beast within us all. Electrifying, resilient and energetic. Goldsmith was probably as surprised as anyone that he would have to re-examine the same character another two times in his career (although it is nice to note that he and his music appear like ghostly mentors on Brian Tyler's soundtrack for the fourth instalment) and the unbelievable news is that his music actually got better as the films multiplied. He would expand his already famous themes and add ethnic colour, increased action and much more aggression as he went along.

But it all started here with a little film about a man-hunt. Listening to this disc now is as refreshing as when I first heard the music whilst watching the AA Cert movie (whilst underage, natch!) way back when. It has, indeed, been a Long Road since then, but The Razor's escape from the police station and Mountain Hunt's rip-roaring fanfare have become two of the best cues in my ever-growing collection. Rambo's bone-crunching odyssey begins with First Blood and Goldsmith's classic score is pulsating, raw and unpredictable. An absolute knockout and the perfect music to listen to the next time you are on the run!






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