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Classic Bernstein score full of surprises, exciting action, and one of the most beautiful themes he ever wrote
A review by JAMES SOUTHALL
Music composed by
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Album running time
Album cover copyright (c) 1981 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc.; review copyright (c) 2008 James Southall
An adult-themed, science fiction animation, Heavy Metal was pretty daring for its time - and while not exactly successful, it's not hard to imagine that it has been rather influential over a lot of other filmmakers in the years since. The film - an anthology of various different stories - seems a very unlikely one to have been scored by Elmer Bernstein, but his involvement came thanks to producer Ivan Reitman, and it was to prove one of the most important scores of his career, if nothing else then because it was the first score on which the composer used what was to become his signature instrument - much to the chagrin of some of his fans - the ondes martenot.
The other reason it's so important is that it's so good. There are various excellent themes, but the one everyone knows - Taarna's Theme - is absolutely one of Bernstein's best. It is heard surprisingly infrequently in the body of the score, and never in as full a form as the familiar concert arrangement which has been played and recorded so many times in the years since - but it leaves such an impression, it can sometimes be hard to get past it and appreciate all the other delights the score has to offer. It's such a beautiful piece, heard in so many wonderful arrangements - whether with the ondes, a wordless female vocalist, or the full orchestra. (It was originally written for, but not used in, Saturn 3.)
Because of the anthology nature of the film, the score itself is made up of a number of little episodes. They're not self-contained entities - there is overlap of themes between them - and this actually makes for a really strong album when presented in this chronological fashion (well, chronological in terms of how it was intended by Bernstein - the music was rearranged a bit after the film was re-edited). There's a brilliant heroic action theme which dominates early parts - reaching its thrilling climax in "Pursuit" - and then a couple of tracks later, a completely new one which is just as good ("Getting Bombed"). This is amongst the most dynamic action music of Bernstein's career - apart from in his comedies and a few of the westerns, he didn't score many films which required music like this - and given how good it is, that seems a bit of a shame!
This is a score full of surprises, and Bernstein's use of choir is one of them. I'm sure he must have used choir on other occasions, but it was so rare that I'm struggling to think of any examples, but the way he integrates it into the action music would be a lesson many younger composers (who don't think twice about adding 100-piece choirs to their 100-piece orchestras, on any film) would do well to learn. There's a lot of action here - and of course that wonderful main theme - and still a lot more! There's another big, romantic theme, introduced in "Robot Love", which is vintage Bernstein - it could easily come from one of his 1950s soap opera scores! So beautiful. There's even time for a Rozsa-esque epic theme ("The Sword") which would have graced any of that composer's biblical epics.
This is a pretty unique score in Bernstein's canon - one with so much depth and so much colour. It has never been available on CD (legally) before, so this release from Film Score Monthly is one of the most welcome in a long time - and as an added bonus, the album is greatly expanded compared with the original LP. This is one of Bernstein's most notable scores - and it's even better in this presentation than the abbreviated original one. I'm not a huge fan of his scores for "less serious" films, but this one is right up there with his best. Highly recommended.