Heavy Metal - The Score Soundtrack Review

by Chris McEneany
Movies & TV Review

Heavy Metal - The Score Soundtrack Review

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The animated sci-fi/fantasy meld of 1981's Heavy Metal, itself an Americanised adaptation of the highly successful and cult-favoured French series of adult-themed comic-books Metal Hurlant, was a groundbreaking production. Or, at least, it was meant to be. But whilst its avant-garde approach to episodic flights of intergalactic fancy, muscle-hewn bravado, futuristic mystery and all-out horror was certainly outrageous and entertaining, its fusion of heavy rock music and less-than-awesome visuals only ever had niche appeal written all over it. Ralph Bakshi had already pushed back the boundaries of conventionally accepted animation with the bawdy comedy Fritz The Cat in 1972. And then, again, with Wizards in 1977 and then his fantastic, rotoscoped version of The Lord Of The Rings in 1978. When Ivan Reitman and Leonard Mogel opted to take the blistering concept of nearly-nude warrior women, time and space altering green orbs, zombified crewmen aboard a doomed B-17 bomber and a nerd who becomes a mighty hero with a rippling physique and the voice of John Candy to the big screen, they had wanted to combine its lavish visuals with pounding rock classics in an attempt to bring in more fans ... and naturally make more money off the back of a song-based soundtrack album. But Reitman also wanted there to be a full-blooded film score wrapped around the imagery, too ... so he turned to the composer he most admired and had even worked with previously on his directorial debut and screwball comedy, Meatballs - the esteemed, and highly enthusiastic Elmer Bernstein.

I've talked about Bernstein already in reviews for the scores for Saturn 3 and True Grit and this long-overdue release of his outstanding work for Heavy Metal just reinforces my belief that he was one of the greatest, and most versatile of film composers. What he brings to a score is passion, imagination and a truly unique desire for experimentation that only the likes of Jerry Goldsmith, Leonard Rosenman and Bernard Herrmann ever really attempted with as much panache. With phenomenal and immortal scores for The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape under his belt, Bernstein had, by the late seventies entered a much more diverse and unpredictable phase of composing. Although primarily known for his work in the Western genre and on period classics like To Kill A Mockingbird and war dramas like The Bridge At Remegan, he would nevertheless go on to produce wildly diverse works such as for The Field, An American Werewolf In London and The Age Of Innocence. But this transitional period from established genre to a pick 'n' mix selection from across the board really began with the stabbing intensity of Zulu Dawn (1979) and his frightening sci-fi answer to Goldsmith's Alien score with Saturn 3 (1980). Somehow, he had found a love for the ethereal and a delight in unorthodox percussion - both of which he brought into play in his score for Heavy Metal - and the film's hodgepodge of stories, themes and environments gave him free license to explore the boundaries of the orchestra with, arguably, an even greater and more thrilling relentlessness than he had evidenced before.

One of the advantages of scoring a portmanteau movie is that it allows the composer to create a range of musical ideas for each story, as well as an overarching theme to top and tail them and, in this case, even link them all together. With the arrival of the mysterious glowing green orb - the notorious and evil Loc Nar - and its wicked influence throughout the eight colourful vignettes that comprise the film, Bernstein carves a deep, eerie and resonant signature cue with a female choir and a synthesiser that weaves a spell in various guises along the way, culminating in a powerful Dies Irae finale in the climax. The stories, themselves, are diverse and take place in different times, dimensions and portions of the galaxy. Bernstein is allowed to concoct themes for each that can, by turns, be heroic, mysterious, action-packed, terrifying, sleazy and transcendent - in fact he probably couldn't have asked for a better, or more involving assignment. After the initial prologue, which sets up the emphatic, doom-laden yet seductive tone of the Loc Nar with female voices and a Yamaha harpsichord, Bernstein trips the light fantastique with a high-voltage, sword-and-sorcery barrage to accompany the wish-fulfilling saga of teenage nerd Del who is whisked off to a distant planet, transformed into an Adonis and shown the joys of sex and wanton brutality. With trumpeting brass and swashbuckling sweep, Bernstein delivers several tracks of mayhem, a sweet underscore of love and lust, an almost biblical cadence that seems to recall his work on The Ten Commandments, some exotic flavouring on flute and bassoon to depict the splendour of the castles and temples (and the squalor of the tunnels beneath them) in the otherwise harsh barbarian culture that dominates the planet, and all of this is paced by Den's vigorous theme that, come the climax of the five-track sequence, reaches its triumphant crescendo. Thrilling, bombastic stuff that reaches all four corners of Bernstein's 96-member Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and gets the score off to a rip-roaring, rousing start.

Following on from this sequence, Track 8, entitled Fiste, is actually the only score-cue that caters for what is, in the film, a song-dominated, and very brief story of a bizarre court-case-cum-monstrous-transformation going by the same title. Lasting less than 90 seconds, the track is still a wonderfully manic set-piece that lashes in xylophone, harp, piano and woodwinds as the whole thing proceeds towards a climax that is powered by jagged brass and whirlwind direction. There is a sweet tension to the track that irresistibly builds up with swelling chords and thunderous repetition.

The next story in the film is the one that, ostensibly, appeals to me the most. Detailing the EC-Comics style-cum-Twilight-Zone misadventure that befalls a WWII US B-17 bomber that, already stricken by enemy fire, then becomes subject to the machinations of the Loc Nar orb, Bernstein's score - in this case also worked upon by his regular collaborator David Spears - takes a turn for the aggressively strident and then segues into something altogether more spooky and unnerving. When most of the crew are killed, the orb reanimates their blasted remains and they turn into zombies who then besiege the captain who battles them off and bails out, only to land upon a strange island strewn with the wreckage of previous doomed flights. David Spear's music - composed and orchestrated by him but taken from notes by Bernstein when he was not available to take the helm for the segment - strikes up a thematically relevant militaristic stance - snare drums, ominous low tones, brass-led action - that is transformed into a severe and menacing variation of the Loc Nar theme. In the film, rock tracks take over some portions of this sequence and, elsewhere, other elements of the score are tracked-in. This album, however, presents the sequence intact with all the music that was originally created for it. Glacial strings underscore trilling trumpets and dark, heavy tones are granted weight by deep male voices and some disturbing wailing from the female section. When more zombies clamber from the wreckage and surround the captain, the cue, Dem Bones, finishes furiously with low brass and drawn woodwinds, ethereal tinkling of the harp and jabbing bleats from trumpet and trombone perfectly capturing the theme of a shock ending and echoing Bernstein's own style with sinister flourish.

The least affecting of stories follows next with the patently ridiculous, tone-shifting filler piece that essays the daft love affair between a robot aboard an alien vessel and kitten-haired secretary from Washington's White House that his crew have inadvertently abducted. Once again, the Loc Nar, hidden as a green jewel in a pendant, has had a mischievous hand in the proceedings. The Loc Nar theme, synthesised and accompanied by shrill strings, the chimes on a triangle and elegant woodwinds serenades. Bernstein then allows this to sweep into an unashamedly romantic theme that is so much more affecting and warm than the ludicrous visuals and story that his music is, admittedly, trying perhaps too hard to conjure up emotion. His scoring is, however, beautifully lush and tender. Even early on in the section, he affects a gentle patter from the piano and the glittering of a triangle hark back to the almost magical sound of the stunned aftermath of battle from Zulu Dawn - absolutely beautiful.

One of the more popular tales comes next - the future-noir story of burned-out cabbie Harry Canyon and the mysteriously attractive fare he has rescued from a slimy alien gangster who wants the Loc Nar that is now in her possession after the murder of its previous owner, her father. Very definitely playing into the vogue that Bernhard Herrmann made so deliciously insidious with his sultry, doom-tinged saxophone in Taxi Driver, Bernstein evokes a world of danger, sleaze and total mistrust. Low brass croons menacingly beneath the edgy banter of the xylophone and a thick, slow 'n' sleazy jazz fugue bubbles darkly in the character of a world teetering on the brink of an abyss of amorality. But there is also a definite playfulness to the section that comes by virtue of a strangely jovial little party-line for bouncy piano, low strings and harpsichord that is reminiscent of Bernstein's own theme for American Werewolf's cursed enclave of East Proctor. I should also add that this mission-in-progress cue was paid homage by Wolicjar Kilar in his excellent score for the otherwise lousy Polanski-directed occult-thriller The Ninth Gate. The sequence also contains the ethereal Loc Nar theme backed by sonorous vocals, and there is a great section featuring twisting woodwinds, angry brass and suspenseful strings. Bernstein's oft-utilised Americana pervades the preliminary ending, a false hope that has you thinking everything will turn out all right for the two mismatched fugitives. But the plot throws a pure noir-double-cross into the mix and Bernstein accompanies it with a wild clash of the cymbals and a rousing burst from the orchestra, drowning out the whimsy that came before, and then allows the story to draw to a close much as it started - with the dry, mournful sax.

The biggest, boldest and best remembered story then takes the score by the horns and runs wild with it. The famed “Taarna” sequence sees the titular warrior woman doing battle with various barbarians, ride her pterodactyl to glory and wrestle a kingdom from its vicious dictator, before finally taking the fight directly to the Loc Nar, itself, in a self-sacrificial duel. By far the largest section of the film, this also comprises the most music. Bernstein fashioned a simply mesmerising and haunting signature theme for Taarna - something that he had actually composed as a love theme for Saturn 3 (see separate review) - and, whilst it had been mostly rejected from that production, it gains full appreciation here. Enamoured by the ethereal, otherworldly sound of an instrument called the ondes Martenot - a sort of Theremin-type of deal, only much easier to use and more adept at precise pitches and resonances - he found the perfect channel with which to incorporate its classically eerie and devoutly sci-fi appeal. Backed with female voices, the ondes Martenot, played by Jeannie Loriod, creates Taarna's sweeping, lush theme, but Bernstein also spreads its unique sound throughout the entire section. Brass fanfares trigger the presence of the orb and Bernstein begins to work in the awesome, satanic swagger of his Dies Irae. Only Leonard Rosenman managed to make this pounding piece of dark dementia more intimidating when he scored The Car (DVD reviewed separately).

But this sequence, brazen and titillating in the film, is lent such grandeur and nobility by Bernstein's music that, as enjoyable as the visuals are, the score is justifiably too good for them. His six-note barbarian motif is energetic and its head-on collision with the glassy tinkling of Taarna's theme, with its lulling strings and plaintiff woodwind call, seems effortless and almost seamless, so well are the disparate themes orchestrated. Track 20, Flight To Holiday Town, features a great softened version of Dies Irae and an almost hypnotic melody for voices and ondes Martenot. Track 21, Fighting, brings in high strings, a fuller Dies Irae and in the next track we are treated to the real deal as far as the Dies Irae goes - deep and booming with pure, spine-tingling evil over a frantic keyboard. Soon, the jarring bleats of brass and intensely pumped piano keys reminiscent of Zulu Dawn, once again, chase the thunder away and herald Taarna's warrior theme amid swirling soft percussion and lunging brass.

Finish, or Taarna Forever, (Track 23) sees the iconic warrior-woman make her last stand as she takes on the Loc Nar, itself. Majestic brass carries a line of regal, Cecil B. De Mille excess, with clashing cymbals punctuating it. The Loc Nar theme, backed now by strong male voices retaliates but the tide has turned and Taarna has won. A delicate flute laments her sacrifice and then her theme returns for a brief, but resounding crescendo as her influence for courage and the greater good of the galaxy travels out to find a new warrior in the closing half of the bookend-section of the story.

We then get over fourteen minutes of Bonus Tracks incorporating a couple of film and album edits of four cues. Mostly, these are cues we have heard earlier in the album, but these cuts are closer to the versions that played in the film, wherein cues are joined together for timing purposes. However, these still play as a nice little compilation of highlights from the score.

Once again, this superlative album is furnished with a spectacular and lavishly illustrated booklet of notes. Chronicling the film's germination in the creative minds of the French comic-book artists Jean “Moebius” Girard and Phillippe Druillet and how the American version breathed life into its cinematic incarnation, the comprehensive notes from Paul Andrew MacLean and Alexander Kaplan proceed to dissect Elmer Bernstein's and David Spear's involvement and is frank about the collaborative process that saw the two work together to create this monumental soundtrack. As usual, there is a highly detailed track-by-track breakdown that, whilst telling the story of the film and its various episodes, also fills us in on the specifics of how Bernstein chose to fashion his music. It should also be noted that the infamous and highly stimulating original poster art can be found on the back page of the booklet and, thus, can be used as the full CD cover if so desired.

Full Track Listing is as follows -

1. Beginning 1:16

2. Intro to Green Ball 1:18

3. Discovery / Transformation (Den and the Green Ball) 3:15

4. Den Makes Out (Den Makes It) 2:42

5. Castrate Him / Searching for Loc Nar 2:04

6. Queen for a Day (Den and the Queen) 2:54

7. Pursuit (Den's Heroics) 2:51

8. Fiste 1:27

9. Getting Bombed 3:06

10. Green Ball 2:15

11. Dem Bones 2:44

12. No Alarm 0:58

13. Robot Love (Space Love) 1:32

14. Harry 1:35

15. The Next Morning 1:56

16. End of Baby 2:43

17. Council (Taarna Summoned) 2:49

18. The Flight to Temple (Flight) 2:16

19. The Sword (Taarna Prepares) 3:32

20. Flight to Holiday Town 2:20

21. Fighting 2:43

22. My Whips! / Taarna Escapes Pit 4:57

23. Finish (Taarna Forever) 3:34

24. Den Makes Out (film version) 2:49

25. Bomber and the Green Ball (album edit) 4:35

26. Harry and the Girl (album edit) 3:41

27. Barbarians (album edit) 3:34

Total Album Time: 71:26

Without a doubt, Elmer Bernstein's epic score for Heavy Metal is far more ambitious and powerful than the film it accompanies. As with the disappointing (but still quirkily fun) Saturn 3, the composer managed to see far beyond the limitations of the screenplay and embellish the movie with nothing less than his best and, in this case, some of his most innovative and imaginative work. His use of the ondes Martinot, his Dies Irae and the interweaving themes that he created for the green orb, Taarna, Del and Harry Canyon make for one of the most satisfying and awe-inspiring soundtracks ever released. The decision to use rock tracks for the movie was a marketing one only and, in my opinion, they definitely lower the power of the stories and limit the scope of the film considerably. Bernstein saw way beyond such faddish trappings and found the heart and soul of Heavy Metal - which may sound a little ironic, but is certainly true. A proper official release of his score has long been craved, and its cult status - even away from the film - has been assured equally as long. So now, with the release of the full - you could say “hidden” - score, Elmer Bernstein's unique and much-cherished contribution can, at long last, be fully appreciated.

I have my misgivings about the film - not least the fact that Bernstein's exquisite score is chopped and changed around, and even replaced in some parts - but the music that he created for it is beyond reproach and takes us to the dimensions that the stories, themselves, struggle to make effective, with the power, beauty and vitality of his own individual stamp. FSM have delivered a truly marvellous package here, with pristine sound from Bernstein's original ¼ inch stereo tapes, and, thankfully, this release doesn't appear to be limited to the usual 3000 copies.

Needless to say, Bernstein's full score for Heavy Metal is very highly recommended, indeed.






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