“If there's any justice at all … the black hole will be your grave!”
Directed by Gary Nelson, 1979’s The Black Hole was Disney’s outer space remake of their own lavish adaptation of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Beneath The Sea. Starring Robert Forster, Yvette Mimieux, Maximillian Schell, Anthony Perkins, Joseph Bottoms and Ernest Borgnine as the members of the spacecraft Palomino, and featuring the voices of Roddy McDowell and Slim Pickens as the heroic robots Vincent and Old Bob, the story found a hopeful band of explorers happening upon a long-lost starship, the Cygnus, teetering on the edge of an immense black hole. Managing to get aboard the seemingly derelict vessel, they discover that this interstellar Marie Celeste is, in fact, manned by a crew of robots and presided over by the clearly deranged and obsessive Professor Reinhardt (Schell), a once brilliant scientist who is now determined to enter the demonic vortex and explore what lies beyond. But this is only part of the secret of the labyrinthine vessel. Mimieux’s telepathic Dr. Kate McCrae is searching for her father who went missing years before along with the rest of the crew of the ghost-ship Cygnus ... and there’s something vaguely familiar about these sinister robot minions who toil away silently for their master.
As Reinhardt’s mania engulfs them all, the truth of his quest becomes terrifyingly clear, and for the crew of the Palomino it becomes a race against time to get off the doomed ship before it falls into the black hole. A ferocious meteorite shower conspires to thwart their efforts to escape, and the incessant onslaught of Reinhardt’s mechanoid enforcers, led by the formidable devil-droid, Maximillian leaves them at the mercy of the cosmic sink-hole alongside the mad professor.
Although a Disney adventure, and only their second true attempt at SF, Nelson’s special effects laden rollercoaster was a surprisingly moody and dark affair for all its vivid pyrotechnics, resplendent star-field backdrops and blaster-toting set-pieces. The inclusion of comedy sidekick robots notwithstanding, this was a serious yarn that smothered its laser-bolts and incredible visuals with a malevolent and grim atmosphere. It pulled few punches – one unexpected demise is splendidly grisly, in fact – and served up a few great shocks along the way. The surreal finale, as everyone takes that final plunge down the galactic plughole baffled and confounded audiences, but it revealed a splendid maturity on the part of a studio otherwise known for coy, cutesy endings in which everyone lives happily after.
But, beyond any doubt, one of the most memorable aspects of Disney’s Star Wars latch-on was its epic score from the late great John Barry. Breaking away from the Korngold-style of high adventure that John Williams utilised for George Lucas' Empire-building franchise, he turned his unique brand of musical melancholia towards the stars, and found only dark madness and the terrifying burden of unbridled supernature awaiting him. And he wrote symphony for it.
I’ve written at length about the Brit maestro’s celebrated work many times before, but his score for The Black Hole occupies a very special place in the hearts of legions of not only his devoted fans but soundtrack enthusiasts in general, as well as those who simply remember being so elementally moved by the music that swirled around this dark space-opera. His work was a sort of antithesis of what John Williams did with Star Wars and was possibly more in-tune with Jerry Goldsmith’s opera of celestial mystery on Star Trek: The Motion Picture, in that it relied on meaty passages of dark and skin-bristling unease and a real sense of something totally alien and primal at its core.
So, with this concept in mind, we find that at its powerful heart, Barry’s score is a tempestuous, ever-whirling, relentless waltz that totally epitomises the cold, hungry, cosmic gulf of the black hole, itself. The titular element, and the pivotal entity in the tale, he anchors onto its sheer ever-present menace and uses that inexorable pull as his main focus. The black hole, as we encounter it in thematic and narrative terms is a monster. It is a lurking bogeyman, an all-devouring fiend on the threshold of the story at every conceivable turn. We may have a robotic army battling our heroes, headed-up by the demonic droid Maximillian and Reinhardt’s obsessive genius. We may have cataclysmic meteors carving up the proceedings like giant molten sugar-puffs during the exciting last quarter. But the planet-swallowing glutton of the vortex is the true beast in this SF take on Shakespearean delusion and melancholia.
So Barry treats it as both the demon and the irreversible hand of fate, Reinhardt's own persona perhaps taking on the same implacable theme.
His main theme, which will be heard many times throughout the score, and with some degrees of poignant variation, is part funeral dirge – a grim processional march – and part waltz – an epic and endless dance of annihilation – that rolls, turns and swirls with unstoppable and often dizzying vigour. An irresistible ostinato for synthesiser drives the curling sonic whirlpool around and around. And this is augmented with the pure SF sound of Craig Huxley’s Blaster Beam, the fabulous electronic boom-bass groan that also adorned Jerry Goldsmith’s outstanding score for Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Although Trek is often cited as being the first production to have used the Blaster Beam, there is some speculation that it was actually Barry who fired it up for its recording debut. Certainly the recording dates for the score for The Black Hole stake this claim, even though Robert Wise’s sumptuous feature was the first to gain a cinematic release.
The thing about a lot of Barry's scores, other than their basic sameness to one another, is how opposed they are to our perceptions of how they should sound to the onscreen action. His James Bond themes are a major case in point. Okay, we have that fabulous 007 action motif, as heard in From Russia With Love, Thunderball, You Only Live Twice, Diamonds Are Forever and Moonraker, which is still officially my favourite piece of music ever (and I fully intend to be played at my funeral!), and some great stuff in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, but the majority of his scores are thick, heavy, slow and dependant upon intensely deep and remorseless chords that seem determined to inform us that this is serious stuff … no matter how fun we are having with the set-piece. This may have become customary for the composer and it is certainly his trademark, but it remains one of the most unconventional manners with which to score kinetic action sequences. Barry would use this approach no matter what the circumstances – Bondian escapade, Zulu skirmishing, underwater mystery (The Deep, Raise The Titanic), zany adventures amongst the stars with super-sexy Caroline Munro (Starcrash), eloquent historical drama (The Lion In Winter), period romance (Hanover Street), Westerns (The White Buffalo, Dances With Wolves) – and it would be distinctive, yes, but frequently divorced from the pace of the action. And there is at least one example when his style absolutely ruined a film. Well, the film in question – The Specialist – was a turkey to begin with, but Barry's dense and sombre tragicata just didn't fit it at all and turned what was already a poor movie into a downright wretched experience. Sometimes his music is just too powerful … almost as though he is seeing something in the films he scores that no-one else, not even the directors, can see. Or else, he is just trying his damnedest to give even the lowliest of productions a fighting chance with painstakingly overwrought scores that seek to lend weight to the flimsiest of premises. It may not always succeed, but it does provide a wonderfully recognisable voice. And that still accounts for a lot.
But with The Black Hole, as with a great many other films he scored, this atypical stance and deadly serious tone worked extraordinarily well. By deliberately not mickey-mousing the action in the tried and trusted manner, and therefore neglecting the occasionally childish and frivolous things happening in the movie, he ensured that our overall trajectory, as well as that of the characters, was inextricably doomed. Thus, both film and music broke the mould for Disney. After this there would also be Alex North and his complex and momentous score for Dragonslayer (see separate CD review), another example of the House of Mouse going against the grain to tell a fantasy story that could be savoured on a much more mature and even disturbing level. For The Black Hole, Barry used a 94-piece orchestra, with added synthesiser and Blaster Beam, and the resulting score, recorded in what is now called the Eastwood Scoring Stage at the Warner Bros. Studio, was the first ever digitally recorded score in motion picture history – using the 3M Digital Recorder. Its original vinyl album, which as a technical landmark for the medium, was immensely popular, but the full score has never been officially released on CD … until now. This release features over twenty minutes more music than that original and highly collectible album, as well as material that was not used in the finished film. For many, this represents a dream come true.
The Overture, Track 1, presents us with Barry's heroic theme for the good guys in The Black Hole, his fanfare rousing yet slowly developed out of an easygoing courage and benefiting from a complete absence of clichéd machismo. He instigates a martial rhythm, but it is one that is strangely softened and heartening rather than all-out stirring. This will become the theme for when the goodies have to blast their way out tight situations with Reinhardt’s robot forces. Here, it acts less like the overture it is supposed to be – because it doesn't contain any of the other themes from the score – and serves best as a moment of optimism before Barry plunges headlong into mystery, menace and mania, laying the foundations in our minds that beneath all the unease and trepidation there is a spark of shimmering humanity. Disney actually played this piece as an Overture during the film's initial theatrical run, probably because it was the most enjoyable theme in it. Few can argue that it seems out-of-place with all the rest of the score, but this is no error on Barry's part, no unlooked-for aberration. He had to have something musical to battle against the pull of the black hole and its own monumental theme … and he knew that we, the audience, would need something cathartic that we could grab onto amidst all the darker squalls of apprehension, moody character and menace that he would be delivering. Heard marvellously, besides here, in Tracks 15 and 16, the theme seems to exist as a separate, though vital entity in its own right.
The Main Title hurls us into the churning maelstrom immediately. Strings shiver with fear about what is coming, the violins wailing in abrupt, almost signalling bleats over the gentle plucking of a harp, before his military progression for horns moves against and over them, ultimately sweeping them along in tidal surges. The synthesiser lends an addictive Sci-fi flavour, cymbals clash like the foaming clouds of a supernova, and the whole outer-space tsunami builds and builds in weight, size and strength. The amazing clarity of this recording allows us to now plainly hear the wonderful curl of the harp, and the unusual whistling and blowing of the synth like never before. Brass provides a pivotal secondary motif that heaves and rolls in earnest, almost like a symphonic grin at the sheer power of it all.
Track 3, That's It, replays this majestic theme in a slower, more underscored variation, bringing with it Huxley's Blaster Beam – an aluminium beam strung with metal wires that could be plucked or struck to create a wild diversity of unearthly and reverberant sounds. The following two tracks tackle this main theme again, firmly establishing it as the never-ending cycle that is directing the flow of the story. In Zero Gravity, it is both harder and more mysterious. Chimes and glockenspiel can be heard adding metallic graces to the tempest. But this track also provides what will prove to be the score's most moving and affecting element. At around the 3.40 mark, Barry reintroduces the ethereal string notes that commence the piece, almost as though the whole swirling whirligig is about to start all over again, but then after a brief pause, the strings rise up into a gorgeous, semi-religious motif that is thematically very reminiscent of the arrival of dawn to scare away the demon Chernabog at the end of the glorious Night On Bald Mountain sequence from Fantasia – fittingly this was arranged by the spellbinding Ave Maria. Barry keeps his moment of transcendent revelation brief, but it soothes away the tension beautifully. Yet the trickster knows that this story is not to be permitted too much in the way of hope … and, just as swiftly, he descends us back into the orchestral vortex for the final stretch of the track. Importantly, he will return to this motif for the film's memorably strange climax, once again, his repetition matching the cyclic nature of the black hole, itself. Horns, brass and Blaster Beam roil away, the synth then sizzling its ostinato to the clash of cymbals.
After this tremendous scene-setting audio blitz, the next section plays up the eeriness of the Palomino crew’s first sighting of the huge and gothic Cygnus just hanging there, spectrally, on the brink of the cosmic abyss. Barry creates an unutterably ominous sense of both wonder and dread as they nose around the amazing Victorian-inspired mile-long construction of glass and criss-crossed steel, their searchlight illuminating the lonely and probably haunted hulk. His repeating, ever-turning “gravity” motif rolls with various other ideas for elegant strings, woodwind and harp, the hypnotic power of this dominating ostinato luring us in for A Closer Look, and brilliantly depicting the enormity of the dangerous space surrounding the two craft, and the sensation of weightlessness that governs the Palomino crew until they dock with the Cygnus. A gentle, but eerie piano motif glides against mysterious strings, suggestive of Kate's sensing that people are aboard the ship.
Once they have gained access to the ghost-ship, Captain Dan Holland (Forster), Dr. Alex Durant (Perkins), Lt. Charlie Pfizer (Bottoms), scientist McCrae (Mimieux) and story-hungry journalist Harry Boothe (Borgnine) are gradually drawn into the main control room, a vast chamber of blinking lights, ominous shadows and a leviathan viewing window that gazes out towards the black hole, whereupon they meet Reinhardt, his intimidating hench-droid and the black-robed and masked remnants of the brain-washed crew of the Cygnus. The music accompanying their ushered, string-pulled investigation of the strange vessel is not unlike that which Barry has composed for many a Bond mission, usually as 007 either penetrates an enemy's lair or is led through it as a “guest”. This supremely atmospheric material is heard in The Door Opens, which is a beautiful and lengthy passage. As each new room, hall, gantry-platform or monorail car is encountered, Barry greets it with either menacing low tones, ethereal strings and horns, snares and muted trumpets to convey unease, wonder or suspicion … and sometimes all three.
Pretty Busy brings in some more synth-based warbling and whistling in a pure SF mode, but continues with the slow-burning dread and unease of the situation as Maximillian leads Charlie and VINCENT, the loyal Palomino robot voiced by McDowell, towards the repair shop where they meet Old Bob (Pickens), a similar droid to VINCENT, but one who has certainly seen better days. Barry loves this aura of mystery and awe, as it continues in the next three tracks. Strings gently croon in the sort of brooding beloved from seventies-era Bond, thickened by low piano and plucked harp. In a marvellous scene that riffs upon a similar one found in 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, Forster spies a bizarre funeral taking place with the robed drones he had assumed were merely robots, and is moved-along by Maximillian. Borgnine discovers an extensive agricultural zone and attempts to communicate with one of the drones in Can You Speak? Again this a hushed period of low piano notes, slowly keening strings and delicate inflections from the harp. There is pain here, and it is the sort of pain that only John Barry could illustrate so eloquently. Poor Creatures continues this dawning realisation that the drones are, in fact, the brainwashed dregs of who were once Reinhardt's colleagues.
As the rest of the crew are making these horrible discoveries, Durant is drawn ever-closer to the mad commander of the Cygnus and his warped intentions. There's always a guy like him aboard, isn't there? Blind to the truth, and infatuated with the possibilities being offered by this once-in-a-lifetime voyage that Reinhardt is promising, the blinkered scientist refuses to believe the suspicions being raised about what the madman has done with the ship's crew. The short meandering of double-bass and low piano in Ready To Embark, Track 12, essays his falling under the lunatic's spell. Whilst he attempts to shoehorn his way into the history books and volunteers to voyage with Reinhardt to where no man has gone before, Kate's ESP warns her of the danger they are all in, and she informs Durant that the Palomino is making preparations for blast-off. In Start The Countdown, Barry combines the low but steady rhythm of the previous track with sinister little hits from the Blaster Beam. The strings from the very start of the Main Titles are recalled, before climbing into a mournful wail of warning as Kate implores Durant to reconsider his proposal to fly off with Reinhardt. Harry and the others are keen to just leave without him, and VINCENT is then ordered to telepathically tell Kate the truth about what the madman has done with the crew … and her father. There is an element that harks back to Barry's serene, yet doomed motif for King Kong's mountain lair and his first sighting of the World Trade Centre, but he then makes a concession to the build up for a traditional crescendo as Durant is finally compelled to unmask one of the drones and see the proof for himself. Strings soar with impulsive agitation as the grim humanoid beneath is revealed and Durant then confronts his hero. But Barry does not score the ensuing moment when the dreaded Maximillian zooms down from the rafters and eviscerates Durant, putting Perkins in a spin, literally.
Instead, with Durant Is Dead, he commences the march that begins the final act of the film. Horns call out over strings as subtle taints from the Blaster Beam compete with piano, an insistent beat hammered out with snares forming a martial backup that works equally as well for scenes of the robots hovering their way down corridors as it does for the button-switching build-up to the Cygnus' launch into oblivion. Reinhardt has Kate whisked away to be brainwashed and transformed into one of his drones, but ...
In Laser and Kate's OK, we get a valiant burst of the laid-back “hero” theme as our boys rescue the imprisoned blonde from a horrifically unwanted surgical procedure, their weapons laying waste to the robot sentries and a running gun-battle then taking place in the corridors and halls of the Cygnus. With VINCENT doing a showboating spin, his on-board ordnance being deployed in a balletic display of fire-power and even fisticuffs, Barry has the cymbals clashing with a massive surge of rip-roaring confidence and split-second swagger. The first part of Kate's OK is slow and tense as robot sentry reinforcements move in and see through the goodies' disguise as robed drones, but the hero motif soon kicks back in with a rousing vigour. The drums, the bass and the brass push outward with a buttress-like wall of swashbuckling finesse that is slyly sedate in orchestration, yet still triumphant. This is the sort of relaxed tempo action that furnished Bond – all at once strong and unbeatable, yet imbued with a measured nobility that feels immensely satisfying. To this track Maximillian's “crack unit” is chopped to pieces in a terrific crossfire.
A fan-favourite theme comes next.
As Harry Booth feigns an injury so that he can avoid the danger and just fire up the Palomino to escape the doomed Cygnus, the rest of the heroes realise that they've been abandoned. Barry begins his heavy, rhythmic motif for low piano, plucked strings and harp that we heard instigated earlier in the driving Hot And Heavy. As a battle rages in the agricultural zone, a storm of meteorites swarms at the Cygnus, causing damage to the superstructure. Chaos reigns. The Palomino is blown “out of the sky” by Reinhardt, and then the ship is torn asunder by the colossal forces at work within the storm, featuring that awesome shot of a huge meteorite rolling down through the ship and the good guys only just getting out of the way in time. With the command centre wrecked and Reinhardt pinned down beneath a heap of cleaved steel, his sadistic hench-droid is unleashed to pursue his little nemesis of VINCENT, a barraging battle of steel wits heard in the relentless Hotter And Heavier.
Xylophone and percussion shriek out the sudden appearance of the demon-robot at the end of a yawning and collapsing walkway. Again, this is very Bondian. Horns and brass continue to shout out and blurt musical threats, stinging the track with orchestral equivalents of laser-bolts and clashing steel as VINCENT slams into Maximillian and drives him back, giving his companions a chance to get away. Barry then propels the vicious, metal-clanging smackdown between the two with that now-familiar rhythmic theme, only this time it contains more immediate dread and menace. The face-off continues until VINCENT manages to drill a hole through his enemy's satantic red torso, powering him down in a shower of fizzing sparks and letting his body drift off into the hellish clouds of the vortex. The rhythm continues as the human survivors clambour up through the twisted wreckage of the Cygnus, trying to get to Reinhardt's probe-ship, as the black hole hauls them in. VINCENT even manages a mid-air rescue as Charlie loses his grip.
A touching final epitaph is woven for VINCENT's farewell to the dying Old Bob with anguished strings in Track 21, and then Barry does what his music had warned us he would do right from the start – he leads us straight into the hellish vortex of the black hole as the survivors, having made it to the probe-ship, realise that it has been programmed to blast straight into the heart of the maelstrom. Into The Hole commences, then, as dark, demented and thunderous. Heavy chords pummel us, a synthesiser wails out an electronic lament. We see the fantastical, surreal and unexplained fusion of Reinhardt and Maximillian as they free-fall into a likening of Dante's Inferno, the soul-robbed denizens of this apocalyptic wasteland wandering in a bleak procession before this fiendish overlord to the accompaniment of bass and cymbals crashing in fiery unison. For the heroes, however, something altogether more transcendent and exultant takes place. Together with hypnotic memories and strange visions of what could be angels, they are catapulted through the vortex and then out of the other side towards a bright, but unknown destination. Barry's music attains the celestial beauty of soothing strings and tremulous woodwinds, before harp and snares and rousing brass reach a joyous crescendo.
Track 23, End Title, gives us that remorseless main waltz theme for the black hole, reminding of the dark power of Barry's score. And then we get a bonus track entitled In, Through … And Beyond, that plays the main theme for us once more but with the electronic elements and the Blaster Beam soloed-out. Several layers of vintage synth churns and hums and pulses and warbles with brash, sizzling aplomb. It's an amusing variation that climaxes with whistling tonal white noise, a cue culled from Barry's original composition and called End Wind. Although it was never actually mixed into the final track, album producer Randy Thornton has marvellously incorporated it here as an unusual little signing-off from both the Palomino and the Cygnus.
And there we have one of the most requested film-scores ever. Now fully available and in exquisite quality.
Barry’s score is a death march - angry, earnest, bitter and unforgivable, and yet lit with moments of revelatory splendour that are almost spiritual in their capacity to move and to haunt. His mid-seventies turn-around to melancholy is very much in evidence throughout, and yet he is still able to evoke heroic excitement and noble adventure with his fanfares of slowly determined derring-do. He expands upon space-born ideas he first formed in his Bond scores for You Only Live Twice and Moonraker, but also brings in the deep, churning desires that played so tragically at the heart of The Deep, King Kong and Raise The Titanic. There’s no other composer, alive or dead, who could match Barry for the sheer emotion that he could evoke with just the very first notes of a theme. With The Black Hole he would create his customary wall of orchestral sound, adding a hypnotic melody and a supremely giddy sense of the vastness of space to his depiction of the ruthless energy of the galactic wormhole.
The protracted history of The Black Hole’s long-awaited release on disc in complete form is detailed in an accompanying 24-page booklet. Lavishly illustrated and boasting a terrifically heartfelt chronicle of what it takes to see such a dream project through to fruition, this is must-reading for those who truly appreciate the tasks that were undertaken to make available a Holy Grail such as this, and the sheer determination and love that goes into it.
And there’s more good news. With Intrada’s continuing collaboration with Disney, this release is unlimited, meaning that you should have no problem picking up a copy from the usual sources such as Intrada, themselves, or Screen Archives or BuySoundtrax.
Full track listing
Main Title 1.49
That’s It 1.43 *
Closer Look 2.02**
Zero Gravity 5.48
Cygnus Floating 2.06*
The Door Opens 4.09**
Pretty Busy 0.48*
Six Robots 1.57
Can You Speak 1.19*
Poor Creatures 1.41*
Ready To Embark 0.44*
Start The Countdown 3.47
Durant Is Dead 2.31
Kate’s O.K. 2.49
Hot And Heavy 2.43*
Raging Inferno 0.54*
Hotter And Heavier 1.59*
Bob And V.I.N.C.E.N.T. 0.54*
Enter The Hole 4.56**
End Title 2.34
In, Through … And Beyond! 2.46
* Previously Unreleased
** Includes Additional Material Not Used In The Film
“The time has come to liquidate our guests.”
John Barry’s score for The Black Hole should need no introduction to genre-fans. Whereas John Williams created colourfully heraldic fanfares, whip-crack action and fabulously exotic alien mystery for Star Wars, Barry focussed on two emphatic moods – dread-filled awe and destiny-bound heroism – for his intergalactic adventure. He’d already done the “fun” side of SF with his music for Starcrash – although coupled with a very 70's Love Boat style - and even if Disney’s film was still going to boast cute robots and laser-beam shootouts, he was determined to keep things dark and mature and pessimistic for The Black Hole.
Barry was an unashamed advocate of the tragically romantic, musically speaking … so you pretty much understand that he won't be playing to the conventions of epic SF action. But what he creates here is a mixture of dark dementia, velvet unease and ethereal mystery, his powerful brooding interrupted only with fleeting motifs of decisive action. But the mood is utterly superb and spellbinding, a dense and rich evocation of deep suspense and galactic melancholia. His main theme will truly embed itself into your heart and soul, and the lingering coda of quasi-religious colour and perplexed triumph is sure to haunt.
With such an incredible and long-awaited release, you pray for the best possible quality. And you can rest assured that in the hands of Disney and Intrada, you've got it. The Black Hole sounds simply amazing and, coupled with lavish notes and gorgeous packaging, this is a release that no score-fan should pass up. And the fact that it is not at all limited in number means that you can't miss out.
John Barry's powerful score for The Black Hole gets the highest recommendation possible.
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